California voters to weigh proposal to ban forced prison labor in state constitution

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California voters will decide in November whether to remove an exemption for involuntary servitude from the state constitution under a proposal the state Legislature approved Thursday.

In California and many other states, the state constitution bans involuntary servitude except as a punishment for crime. The proposed amendment would change the constitution to say that “slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited.” Proponents of the measure want the state to outlaw forced prison labor in which people who are incarcerated are often paid less than $1 an hour to fight fires, clean prison cells and do yardwork at cemeteries.

“Incarcerated people's relationship to work should not be one of exploitation and little-to-no agency,” said Democratic Assemblymember Lori Wilson, who authored the proposal. “Let us take this step to restore some dignity and humanity and prioritize rehabilitative services for the often-forgotten individuals behind bars.”

The proposed constitutional amendment passed overwhelmingly in the Senate, with a few Republicans voting against it. The state Assembly quickly gave the measure final approval in the Legislature, meaning it now heads to voters.

The proposal is a part of a package of reparations bills introduced by the California Legislative Black Caucus. Lawmakers announced the package earlier this year as part of an effort for the state to atone and offer redress for a history of racism and discrimination against Black Californians.

California has a long legacy of involuntary servitude that still lingers today with people who are incarcerated who are forced to work often facing the threat of punishment if they refuse, said state Sen. Steven Bradford, a Los Angeles-area Democrat.

“Today, we have the opportunity to take a step in the right direction towards ending that legacy,” he said.

The state Senate rejected a similar proposal in 2022. Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom's administration opposed the measure, warning it could cost taxpayers billions of dollars if the state had to pay people in prison a $15 hourly minimum wage.

Several states, including Alabama, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont, have in recent years approved amendments to their constitutions to remove slavery and involuntary servitude exceptions.

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has a similar exception to California for slavery and involuntary servitude as a “punishment for crime” if the person has been “duly convicted.” Democrats in Congress have failed in recent years to pass a proposal to remove the exemption.

State Sen. Lola Smallwood-Cuevas, a Democrat representing Culver City near Los Angeles, said the California proposal is a “long-overdue” reform and that it is unacceptable for people who are incarcerated to be put to work for such low pay.

“It undermines everyone's ability to earn a living wage in California,” she said. “It also normalizes exploitation. It normalizes indignity and inhumanity.”


Austin is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Austin on the social platform X: @sophieadanna