Sacramento, CA

How a Constitutional Loophole Allows Legal Slavery to Exist - and the People in Sacramento Aiming to Abolish it.

Olivia Monahan

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Emiliano Bar/Unsplash

With the state of California one of only nine states that currently allows for involuntary servitude to be included as a component of criminal punishment, the Sacramento chapter of civil and human rights organization All of Us or None have come together to push the ACA 3 bill onto the ballot.

Introduced by Senator Sydney Kamlager, in its distilled essence ACA 3 (The California Abolition Act) aims to remove the language that legally allows involuntary servitude from the California constitution, without any form of exceptions.

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Visual representation of the language that would be stricken, and what it would be replaced with.California Legislature Website

But what is involuntary servitude?

In order to understand our present, we must first understand our past.

THE HISTORY OF THE JUSTICE SYSTEM

The 13th Amendment was passed in Congress on Jan 31, 1865. An amendment that came after a long fought and bloody war that left hundreds of thousands of casualties on both sides of the line drawn in the sand. An amendment that in theory abolished slavery across the United States.

Except.

"Except as punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted."

Yet before the 13th amendment was ratified and before the Civil War had even begun, there existed the Act For The Government and Protection of Indians. "Protection" being a misleading title at best. Enacted by the first session of the California State Legislature in April of 1850, the legislation paved the way for the involuntary servitude of Indigenous peoples who were found "breaking the law" on their own land. Made up of 20 different points, the Government Act gave colonizers who had taken over the land in order to participate in the Gold Rush, the ability to wield power over the Indigenous people.

Everything from "employers are granted the right to obtain the children and keep them until age 18 for males, 15 for females" to being able to put an Indigenous person into involuntary servitude for committing the crime of "loitering" or "strolling about" in public places, were all part and parcel to the Act. With it's passing into law, colonizers were able to create work forces off the slave labor of Indigenous people. In a similar fashion to the Government Act, the comparable exception adopted into the 13th amendment allowed for Southern pro-slavery lawmakers to create laws that were far easier to break than they were to abide. Known as The Black Codes, these laws put into motion the swift end to the Reconstruction Era, and paved the way for the Jim Crow laws and the rise of the KKK as a retaliatory response to Black people being granted a freedom they never should have had to fight for in the first place.

SLAVERY, BY ANY OTHER NAME.

While the United States accounts for only 5% of the world's population (as of a 2015 study), it also accounts for 22% percent of world's prison population, and that figured doesn't include juveniles who are currently incarcerated in the same system, and beholden to the same standards of involuntary servitude.

"I remember I wanted to take these certain classes. Classes that would help me actually rehabilitate myself while I was locked in this cell," Henry Ortiz recalls, "but they were trying to force me into one of the work programs. It was so much harder to get into classes than it was to get placed, or forced, to work. But I knew I needed that class, so I ended up having to go to extremes to get where I needed to go."

The extremes he refers to was his willingness to engage in a prison riot in order to get transferred out of the prison he was in, and sent to a facility that had the class he wanted to take. Which, according to Ortiz, is far more common a practice than you would think.

"You are constantly fighting to survive inside those walls. In so many ways. Not just for your physical safety, or your mental health. You’re fighting on a constant basis to get the rehabilitation that the system claims is the purpose of incarceration. If we take away the ability for the prison system to make millions of dollars off of our slave labor by passing ACA 3, than the prison system would be forced to redirect their energy to actually serving the purpose they claim. To rehabilitate those inside the walls. To prepare them to go back out into the world reformed, restored, and ready to make a positive re-entry into their community."

Ortiz, who was formerly incarcerated and now spends his days advocating for the people still behind the wall, along with the other All of Us or None members, aim to speak for the voiceless masses currently imprisoned in the system, as well as the families of those affected by mass incarcerations.

While passing ACA 3 would be a hard fought battle, it would be nowhere near the end of the war. Removing the language that permits involuntary servitude would only be the first step in the process. According to Ortiz, "... it's not like the system would just come to a grinding halt cold turkey and all these forced labor projects would cease. What passing ACA 3 does though, is gives the men and women currently incarcerated a legal foot to stand on when it comes to fighting for their rights. If we remove involuntary servitude, and the prison system continues to abuse it, then in turn we would be able to go after the system itself in court. Which often times, as we all know, is one of the most powerful ways to create change."

AN OPPORTUNITY FOR CHANGE

It's easy for some to look at the concepts of involuntary servitude and slavery as separate issues. American History has taught us from an early age that slavery ended in 1865, and that things have progressively gotten better since then. When looking through a lens with a focus on the justice system however, one could argue that while the more things have (theoretically) changed outside those walls, the more things have stayed the same behind the bars of the prison industrial complex.

Regardless of race, gender, preference or crime committed, the minute the justice system deems you a criminal is the minute your rights are effectively stripped away.

Which is why Senator Kamlager, All of Us or None, and the people working behind the scenes are continuing the fight to push ACA 3 onto the ballot in California. Based on the current trajectory of the bill, it's very possible that residents of California will have the opportunity to take part in a monumental vote. One that will act as an important step towards righting wrongs over 150 years in the making.

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Olivia Monahan is a Sacramento based Chicana journalist and editor whose work critically examines the dynamics of art, culture and politics with a focus on active participation over passive observation. As both a writer and editor, she values and activates instances of connection in the content and presents readers with equal parts truth and reflection.

Sacramento, CA
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