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California’s push to ban prison labor and pay reparations

California’s push to ban prison labor and pay reparations

California hsince slavery was not allowed since it was admitted to the Union in 1850, but the state has allowed prisoners to be used for labor. Now, some are looking to change that.

Some state lawmakers are pushing to change the Golden State’s constitution so that inmates must be paid the state’s minimum wage for their work.


“Slavery is prohibited. Involuntary servitude is prohibited except for the punishment of crime,” said Article 1, Section 6 of the California constitution since it was amended in 1974.

Currently, some prisoners are able to take up employment. One of the jobs is to be a firefighter for eight to 30 cents an hour as part of a rehabilitation program, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

A bill that would have put a question on the ballot last November banning all forms of “involuntary servitude” failed in the Senate because the administration of Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA) warned that paying prisoners could cost the state $1.5 billion annually, according to the Associated Press.

Democratic state Rep. Lori Wilson proposed a bill that would put a question on the November 2024 ballot about a constitutional amendment to ban all forms of “involuntary servitude” in the state. He told the Los Angeles Times in February: “There is no place for slavery in our constitution. It is not consistent with our values, or with our humanity.”

The push to strike the line from the state constitution appears to be an uphill battle. Prisoners make up an important part of the fire crews used to fight the state’s frequent wildfires. The push also comes as the state is considering giving reparations to black residents.

Newsom signed the bill to create a reparations task force in 2020, but has been largely silent on whether he would support the current proposals. The proposals call for $360,000 for the roughly 1.8 million black residents with at least one slave ancestor in the Golden State.

The estimated cost of $800 billion is about 2.5 times the state’s annual budget, and Newsom is currently trying to juggle a budget shortfall of nearly $22.5 billion by fiscal year 2024. The budget shortfall it probably means programs will see cuts and implementing a reparations program would be a new expense for the state.

Members of the task force currently evaluating the reparations proposals have expressed frustration with the media’s focus on the program’s proposed price tag.

“It’s important, but it’s the least important in terms of being able to get to a point in our country’s history and in California’s history where we recognize that the damage cuts across multiple areas and domains and that repair has to align with that. It’s really unfortunate. It actually saddens me that our media isn’t able to be more nuanced. It’s almost like, ‘What’s going to be sensational’ as opposed to what’s important,” said Cheryl Grills, state task force member, at CalMatters.


Aside from the state task force, an independent task force is examining reparations for black residents in the city of San Francisco. The current proposals call for payments of $5 million along with other benefits, including the elimination of personal debt and tax burdens, guaranteed annual income of at least $97,000 for the next 250 years and city housing for $1 per family

San Francisco lawmakers have proposed setting aside $50 million to create an office in preparation to manage San Francisco’s repair program, which appears likely to pass. The proposed plan has drawn criticism from many groups and individuals, including the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP, which argued that investment in the black community would be more helpful than direct payments.

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