Why the California Legislature just failed to vote against a remnant of slavery

By Steven Bradford
July 21, 2022

How can California claim to be the nation’s progressive leader if we can’t wipe away a remnant of slavery?

California’s leadership has taken amazing steps to defend immigrants, combat climate change and, most recently, protect women’s rights. Yet the state Senate recently failed to pass Assembly Constitutional Amendment 3, which would have given voters an opportunity to remove language in California’s constitution allowing for indentured servitude.

The legacy of slavery and forced labor runs deep in the history of California, which is one of nine states that permit involuntary servitude as a form of criminal punishment. Colorado, Nebraska and Utah have already removed clauses from their constitutions that excepted prisons from bans on servitude, so I struggle to understand how we can so fiercely debate the removal of this stain on our constitution. Why is this exception in the state constitution at all? The federal prohibition of slavery started as a presidential proclamation that was eventually expanded by ratification of the 13th Amendment, which also contains language allowing involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime.

For those serving time in our prisons, involuntary servitude means work that is not rehabilitative, the refusal of which can result in punishment. When inmates refuse to work, they can lose visitation rights, be put in solitary confinement or face other penalties. The exception allowing this was not placed in the constitution until the end of slavery. Like a virus, slavery did not die out; it evolved. Prison servitude finds its roots in the same racist bedrock of our nation. It represents a means of control much like sharecropping, a tool for benefiting from uncompensated Black labor. A report by a UC Berkeley economist found that California’s incarcerated workforce is responsible for over $150 million in annual revenue. It seems my colleagues are unwilling to forsake these profits in the name of freedom. We failed to end this coercive and inhuman practice.

This amendment was not about ending our prison labor system; it was about human dignity. Most incarcerated people want to work, either for self-improvement or to maximize their chances of successful reentry into society. They also want to have the means to cover their expenses in prison, such as food, clothing and communication with loved ones. But there are also those who want an education, and they should be able to choose that. Prisoners who decide not to work can lose the privileges that come with it, but they should not be punished. ACA 3 was not aimed at making incarcerated workers employees nor to give inmates a pass on general housekeeping duties. This had nothing to do with wages. This was about prioritizing rehabilitation and standing up for the values of equality and justice for all. If nothing else, ACA 3 would have at least allowed the people of California to decide whether it was time to remove a stain on our history.

Only a few weeks prior to the vote, members of the state Senate stood to proudly celebrate Juneteenth, raising their voices to commemorate a day representing freedom. That resolution passed the Senate with ease. I suppose it’s easy to embrace change when it’s already happened and not when you are called upon to create it. Not only did ACA 3 fail to gain support from enough senators to pass; but there were members on the Democratic side actively working against it.

After 157 years of “freedom,” you cannot call yourself an ally and fail to act on such legislation. California must remove this vestige of slavery from its constitution.

State Sen. Steven Bradford is a Los Angeles area Democrat who chairs the California Legislative Black Caucus and the Senate Public Safety Committee.