Ever since 1865, the US Constitution has read, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The California State Constitution follows suit by reading “Slavery is prohibited. Involuntary servitude is prohibited except to punish crime.”
Changing the Constitution to Allow No Involuntary Servitude. Period.
A growing contingent believes that both statements need to be revised to prohibit the forced labor of prisoners. A new bill, ACA 3 proposes to outlaw the practice in California by changing the state Constitution to read “Slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited.” Similar measures have already been passed in other states, such as Colorado, Nebraska and Utah.
Naturally, there are many passionate arguments both for and against the proposal.
In Favor of Eliminating Forced Prison Labor
Those in favor of getting rid of the “except to punish crime” exception argue that forced labor for inmates is tantamount to slavery. While some proponents of the use of prison labor argue that inmates do earn wages for their work, opponents point out that those wages can often be as little as $.08.
Proponents of the new amendment also point out that this burden falls disproportionately on the backs of African American and Hispanics who are dramatically over-represented in the state’s prison system.
Arguments Against Ending Involuntary Inmate Labor
Those who are against the current changes point out that the prison system currently relies on labor by inmates to keep the prisons running, serving as cooks, custodians, gardeners and more. At only a few dollars wages a day, this is a low-cost way to keep things working and reduce the costs for tax payers. If inmates were paid minimum wage, which is currently $12 an hour in the state, this would mean dramatic increases to the cost of keeping prisons running. -Though for many supporting prison reform, this also means incentivising the state and tax payers to support more alternatives to incarceration that would both reduce the costs to the state and provide those convicted of crimes a preferable option over being locked behind bars.
They also point to programs such as the Prison Industry Authority, which only pays rates between $.40 to $1 an hour, but also lets inmates earn credits towards earlier release. And indeed, it’s easy to see how many people locked behind bars would be eager to receive less money if it means the chance to get out of prison earlier. Interestingly though, some of these inmates are hired for private companies, where they are paid industry-comparable salaries and still earn credits towards release, so it’s worth noting that working towards early release doesn’t always mean giving up a fair wage.
Finally, those who support the current system often argue that it can provide inmates with work experience that can help them get real world jobs upon release. Indeed, the Prison Industry Authority does offer workers the chance to earn certifications in trades such as welding, computer sciences and more. That being said, it’s also worth noting that more than half of the prison assignments being given out are menial tasks such as sweeping and picking up trash. These jobs aren’t offering any real world job skills that will help inmates obtain a good paying job when they’re released.
Even if all prison jobs provided work experience in in-demand fields though, it’s still ethically problematic to force people to work against their will. As reform group All of Us or None co-founder Dorsey Nunn (who previously served 11 years in prison for murder) points out, “People actually thought that my rehabilitation was occurring because they were forcing me to work. Actually, involuntary servitude gives work a bad name. You can’t volunteer when you’re being forced to do this stuff. Nobody in their right mind in the state of California would take a job if they was paying you 15 cents an hour or seven cents an hour or $2 a day.”
Would This Eliminate Prison Work Assignments Entirely?
Riverside Sheriff Chad Bianco says he currently pays inmates around $3.50 each per week, which amounts to $45,000 a year. This would balloon to at least $6 million were inmates to be paid minimum wage and in that case, he argues he would just stop offering inmates the chance to work. “If we are forced to pay we’ll hire someone from the public to do the cleaning, food prep and everything else,” he said.
But the tasks that Bianco is threatening to take away from inmates are precisely the low-paying, menial labor tasks that many critics say inmates should stop being forced to do in the first place. On the other hand, many opportunities to learn actual job skills will continue to be there.
For example, while $12 an hour is a dramatic jump from the $2 to $5 a day inmate firefighters are paid, it’s still far less than what professional firefighters are paid and there’s no doubt California will continue to need firefighters -so that opportunity would almost certainly remain even if the constitution is amended. Similarly, since private companies that hire inmates through the Prison Industry Authority already pay competitive wages, it’s unlikely they would discontinue working with the program.
As George Galvis, another co-founder of All of Us or None, explains, the point of this measure isn’t to take away job training opportunities altogether. “The key word is ‘involuntary. It doesn’t necessarily mean that there won’t be employment or vocational programs and opportunities.”
What This Means for Criminal Defendants
San Diego attorney Peter Liss agrees with reformers that prisoners need to be treated like human beings, not slaves. But he also believes that the state’s prison population should continue to be reduced as it has been during the coronavirus pandemic, which will save tax payers money while incarceration alternatives help to keep the public safe.
One of the best way for those accused of a crime to stay out of prison or jail is to work with a top lawyer who can minimize the charges against you and fight to keep you out from behind bars. If you have been accused of a crime, please call (760) 643-4050 to schedule a free consultation.