Mar 29, 2021
Samuel Brown, an inmate at a state prison in Lancaster, California, is challenging the system of forced labor in prisons. Brown, who has spent 24 years in California prisons, said he has been forced to work, without having a say on the type of work he did, his pay, or his safety. Most recently, Brown said, he was put on COVID-related sanitation duties, for 55 cents an hour.
There is practically no type of work that prison inmates don’t do. They cook, clean, and do other work needed to keep up prisons. Inmates also produce all kinds of goods, including license plates, road signs, furniture and clothing. In California in particular, prisoners also make up an important part of the fire crews that fight wildfires every year.
For all this work, however, inmate workers are paid much less than the legal minimum wage; sometimes as little as 8 cents an hour. It’s robbery in broad daylight.
“As long as there is forced labor and state constitutions that have conditions for ‘involuntary servitude,’” Brown said, “there is still slavery.”
The 13th Amendment, added to the U.S. Constitution after the Civil War, abolished slavery. But it made the exception that slavery and involuntary servitude could be used as “punishment for crime.” States then adopted similar wording in their own constitutions. Brown and his fellow activists are presenting an amendment to the California Constitution, known as the California Abolition Act, so that it bans involuntary servitude under all circumstances.
If forced labor is still alive and well in the U.S., it’s because of the very nature of capitalism: In its relentless pursuit of profit, the capitalist class always looks for ways to strip people of their rights in order to take greater advantage of them.