Assemblymember Sydney Kamlager and the California Abolition Act Coalition (CAAC) on March 4 officially announced Assembly Constitutional Amendment (ACA) 3, the California Abolition Act, which would amend the state constitution to end involuntary servitude.
Article 1, Section 6 of the California Constitution allows the practice of involuntary servitude as a means of punishing crime. The euphemistic language of “involuntary servitude” masks what this nefarious practice is in plain language: forced labor.
“By removing this language from our constitution, we are moving our state into the 21st century and taking steps to ensure that no Californian is ever put in a position of involuntary servitude again,” Ms. Kamlager, the bill’s author, said as she announced the bill from the south steps of the State Capitol.
If passed by the California legislature, ACA 3 will create a ballot measure in 2022 where Californians can vote to remove slavery from our Consitution and ensure the State reflect our values and push for racial equality.
Ms. Kamlager was joined by Assemblymember Ash Kalra (D-San Jose), who also is chair of the Assembly Committee on Labor and Employment; members of the CAAC, including coalition chair Jamilia Land of the Anti-Violence, Safety, and Accountability Project (ASAP); Mr. Brown (via phone); Legislative Manager Shay Franco-Clausen; and April Grayson of the Young Women’s Freedom Center.
Maria Estrada of the Native Women Unity Association, Sam Lewis of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, Porsche Taylor of Prison From The Inside Out, Sylvester Ani of The Love We Don’t See, Molly Watson of Courage California, and Allegra Taylor of The Village Advocates also participated in the event.
“Now more than ever, it’s critical that the language in our constitution reflects our values and our humanity,” said Ms. Land. “Any clause that permits involuntary servitude should not exist in 2021 and ACA 3 is a key step towards establishing a more just criminal justice system.”
The legacy and remnants of slavery have been embedded in our prison system. More than 94,000 people are incarcerated in California prisons, and there remains a huge racial disparity within that population. African Americans account for 28% of the prison population and less than 6% of California’s overall population.
California’s first constitution was adopted in 1849, ahead of its attainment of statehood. California then joined the Union as a “free state” through Congressional legislation, known as the Compromise of 1850. The series of bills also granted concessions to the South, such as the Fugitive Slave Act, requiring government officials and everyday white citizens across the nation to actively assist slaveholders in recapturing enslaved people who escaped from slave-holding jurisdictions. Under this law, any person brought to California before statehood as a slave would remain a slave in the eyes of the law.
The ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 codified what is commonly considered the outlawing of slavery and involuntary servitude. California was the second to ratify the amendment. However, conditional language allowing involuntary servitude to punish crime remains in both the federal Constitution and most state constitutions.
After the Civil War and continuing through the early 1940s, incarcerated individuals were “leased out” to plantation owners and manufacturers as cheap labor. This leasing system was replaced by “chain gangs.”
Many states profited from this dehumanizing practice and California is no exception. Today, incarcerated workers earn as little as 8 cents an hour and are expected to work. While no stipulation of federal or state sentencing forces people to work, physical labor is expected of all able-bodied people while incarcerated. Samual Nathaniel Brown, the original conceiver of ACA 3 and a person incarcerated at California State Prison in Los Angeles County, has had to sanitize the cells of incarcerated people infected with COVID-19 with insufficient personal protective equipment. Refusing his assignment would expose him to being “written up” by prison guards, which he said could jeopardize his chances of receiving early release.
The California Abolition Act builds upon successful efforts to abolish involuntary servitude in Colorado, Utah, and Nebraska. Similar federal efforts are ongoing at the federal level and at the state level in at least 12 other states. To learn more about ACA 3, visit Instagram @ACA3CaAbolitionAct or email ACA3comms@gmail.com.
By Antonio R. Harvey | OBSERVER Staff Writer