California Senate votes to keep indentured servitude in its prisons

Robert J Hansen

By Robert J Hansen

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Senator Sydney Kamlager arguing for ACA 3 in a committee hearing on Thursday, June 16, 2022. ((Screenshot by Robert J Hansen)

Sacramento, Calif. — Removing the language allowing for indentured servitude from California’s Constitution began a couple of years ago when Samual Nathaniel Brown, author of the proposal that is now ACA 3, had to clean a cell after an image died of Covid-19.

He was threatened with jeopardizing his parole for refusing to go to work despite him having asthma and having a high morbidity risk for Covid-19.

Ending indentured servitude in California, the state with the most incarcerated people in the country, wasn’t going to happen without opposition.

But after unanimously passing the Assembly and making it through Senate Committees without any no votes, ACA 3 looked to be headed to voters this November.

Until Thursday when the Senate failed to pass the bill which would have given the choice to Californians on whether to abolish forced labor inside its prisons and jails.

First to voice opposition was the California Department of Finance (CA DOF).

Senator Sydney Kamlager, the author of the bill to remove the language from the California Constitution which allows for indentured servitude for the punishment of a crime, said in a moment of spectacular tone-deafness, that the CA DOF just went on record opposing the Constitutional Amendment prohibiting involuntary servitude.

“Their analysis was both lazy and unimaginative,” Kamlager said. “It misinformed members.”

Then last Thursday, the vote to amend the California constitution failed in the Senate 20-6 with 14 non-voting senators.

The Senators who voted against ACA 3 were Brian Dahle, Steven Glazer (D), Shannon Grove (R), Jim Nielsen (R), Rosilice Ochoa Bogh (R), and Scott Wilk (R).

Nielsen and Ochoa Bogh voted in favor of ACA 3 in their respective committees.

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The Senate vote for ACA 3 on Thursday, June 23, 2022.(Sydney Kamlager via Twitter)

Kamlager will have to get seven more votes on Monday to pass after ACA 3 was given reconsideration on Thursday.

In a telephone interview, Kamlager said the addiction to free labor is as strong now as it was in 1800 and while many people got up and stated their abhorrence they have with slavery, also raised questions about whether voters understood the amendment, raised questions about the cost to the state and about whether the state could still compel incarcerated people to do what it wants them to do.

“There were questions posed to me as to what involuntary servitude means,” Kamlager said.

Kamlager said she wasn’t surprised by the demographics of the senators who opposed ACA 3.

“I was struck by the demographic of people who got up in opposition,” Kamlager said.

What was most disturbing for her was the Senate denying the people the opportunity to vote on changing the law.

“It was denied today with the failure of this bill to get passed,” Kamlager said.

Workers inside prison are exempt from the protections in place that prevents private companies from exploiting workers, according to Kamlager.

“It’s a deeper, darker question about punishment,” Kamlager said. “This is about exploitation.”

Kamlager said Involuntary servitude is about coercion and her goal is to provide some distinction between the lawful administration of a carceral system and involuntary servitude and coercive abuse.

“That’s what I think I heard members wanted clarity on but I don’t know,” Kamlager said.

Wanting to participate in rehabilitating programming or to want to change jobs is not allowed without punishment according to Kamlager.

“To have companies contract with the state to use this labor force where they can never economically get ahead is a modern-day example of sharecropping,” Kamlager said.

Senator Steve Glazer released a statement on his concerns about the bill.

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Senator Steve Glazer, one of six to vote against ACA 3 last week.(Courtesy of Steve Glazer’s office)

“ACA 3 is not even about involuntary servitude – at least of the kind that was practiced 150 years ago,” Glazer said in a statement.

The question this measure raises is whether or not California should require felons in state and local jails and prisons to work.

“That’s certainly a question worthy of debate,” Glazer said. “But those issues can be addressed without a constitutional amendment,”

Banning the work requirement in our prisons and jails would undermine our rehabilitation programs, make prisons more difficult to manage safely, and -- according to the Department of Finance -- add more than a billion dollars a year to the cost of running the prison system, Glazer said.

That’s not exactly what the CA DOF said.

“Because the California Constitution does not define involuntary servitude it is unclear how this amendment would affect forms of work currently being done by justice-involved populations; these would ultimately be decided by future litigation and court decisions. As such, the fiscal effects on local and state governments are subject to a high degree of uncertainty. They could range from relatively minor costs into billions of dollars annually, the largest cost to CDCR,” a spokesperson with the CA DOF said.

Glazer thinks ACA 3 could do is end all required work immediately, and tie the Legislature’s hands forever.

Max Parthas, Director of State Operations at Abolish Slavery National Network said if California does not abolish indentured servitude it will affect all of the other state campaigns.

“We can't afford it. Not when we're so close to finishing what our ancestors began,” Parthas said. “Ending legalized slavery.”

According to Parthas, the clauses have been removed from three states, with five states on the ballot this year and 16 set for next year. This includes a federal joint resolution to repeal and replaces the 13th Amendment with no exceptions.

“Ultimately this was a country founded on wanting something that didn’t belong to them,” Kamlager said. “I believe we have a moral obligation to rectify that.”

Kamlager said the fact that the bill failed runs contrary to her values.

“ACA 3 failed on the Senate floor today, we were granted reconsideration and I am reviewing possible solutions following the robust debate of opposition on the floor today,” Kamlager said. “The hope is that it will cross both houses by June 30.”

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Robert J Hansen is an investigative journalist and economist. Focused on holding elected officials, police and the courts accountable to the people throughout the greater Sacramento area.

Sacramento County, CA
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