Former inmates share memories of forced prison labor

By Antonio Ray Harvey 

Contributing Writer

SACRAMENTO — Assemblywoman Lori Wilson, D-Suisun City, addressed a group of advocates and activists, including formerly incarcerated men and women at the State Capitol last week, saying she is determined to place Assembly Constitutional Amendment 8 on the November ballot this year.

Wilson, chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus, was speaking at an April 29 rally at the State Capitol organized to promote “The End Slavery in California Act,” a measure Wilson authored that would abolish involuntary servitude in prisons across the state.

“For me, it’s a priority to reassert our unwavering commitment to ACA 8 but not just myself as the author but also the entire Legislative Black caucus,” Wilson said at the rally held on the southeast end of the State Capitol’s grounds.

“This is not just legislation. It is a declaration of our value and resolve to end all forms of slavery and involuntary servitude in our state. ACA 8 is vital because it proposes to remove the ‘exception’ for involuntary servitude from the state’s Constitution, declaring unequivocally that all forms of slavery are prohibited,” she added.

The Quest for Democracy rally was hosted by All of Us or None of Us, a grassroots civil and human rights organization focused on supporting formerly and currently incarcerated people and their families.

Group members, advocates, justice-impacted leaders and supporters from all over the state attended the rally and other activities organized around the event. Their goal was to educate lawmakers and participants about prison reform and the importance of the amendment.

In addition to the morning-to-midafternoon rally, an exhibit of 400 black-and-white photos was on display. Organizers collected images from family members of individuals who allegedly died “at the hands of law enforcement,” one of the markers at the exhibit stated.

During the rally, many former incarcerated individuals, along with organizers and supporters took turns performing songs, reading poems and sharing their experiences working in California’s penal institutions. They also shared stories detailing the repercussions they suffered in prisons when they refused to work.

The 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1865. It prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude with one exception: if involuntary servitude was imposed as punishment for a crime.

John Cannon, a member of All of Us or None of Us, performed his hip-hop song, “No Exception: All of Us or None of Us” at the rally. He revealed that he served time in prison and was forced to work in various roles without the ability to object. He worked in warehouses, as a firefighter and in other jobs. Understanding that the “prison industrial complex is a well-oiled machine,” he said, his mission is to see that forced labor is no longer an option.

“Sometimes I don’t think my voice is heard but since I’ve become a member of (All of Us or None of Us) my voice has been heard,” Cannon said. “Especially for Quest for Democracy, for people like me who have been incarcerated before. I am able to go to the State Capitol and get our voices heard in a collective fashion. The issue that is really important to me right now is ending and removing involuntary servitude from the state’s Constitution.”

Article 1, Section 6 of the California Constitution prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude, “except as punishment for a crime.” 

Former state Sen. Sydney Kamlager-Dove, D-Los Angeles, originally proposed Assembly Constitutional Amendment 3 in 2020, when she served in the Assembly, to remove this exception.

The Senate failed to pass what was known as the California Abolition Act in July 2022, preventing the measure from being placed on the general election ballot that year.

Following Kamlager-Dove’s election to the U.S. House of Representatives in November 2022 to replace Rep. Karen Bass, who is now the mayor of Los Angeles, Wilson took up the cause when she was elected to the Assembly. The Assembly approved Assembly Constitutional Amendment 8 last September. It will be heard next in the Senate.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union: California Action, over 65% of the people in prisons reportedly being forced to work are performing essential jobs like firefighting and paving roads.

In 2022, incarcerated workers made up 43% of the state’s firefighters, ACLU revealed. After serving time and being released from prison, the formerly incarcerated are often denied public safety jobs such as firefighters.

“Incarcerated individuals can have severe inhumane punishment for not working, including physical violence and solitary confinement,” Wilson said. “This is not justice. This is exploitation. Period. 

“These punishments can be imposed for absences caused by injury or illness. The relations between incarcerated individuals and work should not be one of exploitation but one of rehabilitation and preparation for reintegration in our society,” she added.

Antonio Ray Harvey is a reporter for California Black Media.