By Cheetara Piry
This story first ran in Black Voice News.
Proposed state legislation aiming to strip underlying vestiges of slavery from the California Constitution has received an overwhelming amount of criticism from a number of Riverside County residents.
As it stands, the California Constitution prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude “except to punish crime.”
Assemblymember Sydney Kamlager, D-Los Angeles, introduced Assembly Constitutional Amendment 3 (ACA 3) Jan. 17. If passed, the amendment would prohibit slavery and involuntary servitude without exception.
All of Us or None and Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC), organizations that serve formerly incarcerated people, are sponsoring the initiative and have partnered with their Riverside local chapter, Starting Over Inc., and Supervisor V. Manuel Perez to set the initiative in motion with the Riverside County Board of Supervisors.
Avalon Edwards, policy fellow for Starting Over Inc. said the intention of bringing this to local municipalities is to symbolize support from the county by saying “yes, we want to abolish all vestiges of slavery from the California State Constitution, we support this,” so once it goes up for a vote in the legislature they can say the entire state of California supports this.
However, Perez’ proposed resolution was pulled from the agenda twice this month for further research due to aggressive community backlash. When first introduced as agenda item 3.33 on Feb. 1, over 130 public comments swarmed in opposition.
The opposing comments came in a seemingly copy-and-paste format asking the Board to “vote no on agenda item 3.33 or remove it from the agenda.”
Perez said these comments may have been led by an organized effort, however he is unsure about who may be behind it.
“The reason why I say that is because the majority of those folks who called or wrote made the same statement,” he said. “When you see that, it is usually from an organized entity.”
An admitted member of the East Valley Republican Women Federated, who wishes to remain anonymous, submitted a comment Feb. 2 that stated:
“I live in Riverside County and ask the Riverside County Board of Supervisors to either vote no on agenda item 3.33 or delete it from the agenda.”
She later denied knowing item 3.33 was related to ACA 3 and insisted her comment was related to mail-in voting fraud.
“I belong to the Republican Womens’ group in Riverside County. I was asking that HR1 be voted down,” she stated via email. “I checked with two different people at Riverside and this bill is about elections.”
But her comment was identical to several others, many of which included added sentences that clarified opposition to the resolution.
The email address of Joy Miedecke, East Valley Republican Women Federated president, can be found at the bottom of another comment that shared the same copy-and-paste format, submitted by Patt Quigg, it read:
“My request (of) the Board of Supervisors either vote no on agenda item 3.33 or remove it from today’s agenda. This is unconstitutional!”
Miedecke declined to comment on the organization’s involvement and neither confirmed nor denied whether the organization had misinformed some of their members about agenda item 3.33 being about mail-in fraud.
Commenters in opposition speculated the item would remove current prison work and rehabilitative programs, and the resolution lacked legal analysis and would put criminals back on the streets.
“This is a play to not keep criminals in jail by changing words around to make people think it is actually slavery that you would want abolished,” Terry Woods, another opposing commentator said.
Perez reiterated the resolution will not put criminals on the street. The ultimate goal, he said, is to amend the loophole that allows for “slavery through involuntary servitude” to be used or allowed for punishment of crime. Perez is referencing the 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution.
According to the University of Cincinnati Law Review, the 13th Amendment is commonly referred to as a “slavery loophole” that permits prison labor to be utilized as “slave labor.”
“This is not to open the system of criminals,” he said. “It has to do with antiquated language that I believe is still racist.”
The Oxford English Dictionary defines servitude as the state of being a slave or completely subject to someone more powerful.
Bill Young, Riverside Sheriffs’ Association president, said he was unsure if this resolution would remove current prison operations.
“As currently written, it is uncertain if this proposed amendment will affect prison work requirements and/or community service programs,” he said in an email.
According to Young, prison programs allow inmates to build skills they can utilize upon release, thereby reducing recidivism. Offenders in community programs receive the benefit of freedom and provide something of value to the community, he added.
Joanna Theleone, policy manager for LSPC, implores those who support rehabilitation to divest from the prison industrial complex, and make a concerted effort in investing towards mental health and holistic wrap-around care.
She declared, although rehabilitation is necessary, the focus should stay on removing involuntary servitude (slavery) as the legal basis for any program.
“Slavery has nothing to do with rehabilitation and has everything to do with economy,” she said. “You’re convicting people and subjecting them to involuntary servitude to work for pennies to the dollar—removing them from their personal economies where their fiscal impact and support are no longer present. This is detrimental to the families then left behind.”
Theolene argued, there is no benefit to prison workforce programs for the purpose of rehabilitation, only to those profiteering from the forced labor, pointing to a recent case in Alameda County.
Aramark, a private for-profit company that sells food prepared by prisoners, allegedly forced pre-trial detainees— including detainees awaiting immigration proceedings at Santa Rita Jail— into involuntary servitude. The company is being sued by over 100 inmates who were put to mandatory work under threat of punitive measures by their jailers, all of whom were not being paid, according to the lawsuit.
Inmates allege they were threatened with solitary confinement, lengthier jail sentences and meals kept from them if they refused to work. The contract between Aramark and Alameda County permits prison labor to be used for the profit of a private company without compensation to the worker, which the lawsuit argues is a violation of state and federal law.
In an NPR interview, Dominique Morgan, a formerly incarcerated activist, shared his experience being homeless as a young man. He said he was imprisoned for engaging in what he called “survival crimes,” such as stealing cars to sleep in and writing checks for food and clothes.
While incarcerated, Morgan said he would make $2.25 for more than 12 hours of work. The Federal Bureau of Prisons reports that inmates earn 12 cents per hour for their work assignments.
“There are incarcerated people in Nebraska who work at the governor’s mansion — literally cleaning the governor’s mansion,” Morgan shared in the interview.
Nebraska, Colorado and Utah have since passed similar legislation removing references of slavery from their state constitutions at the end of last year with high support from their constituents.
“Considering our diversity and values, there is no reason California should not join states such as Utah, Colorado and Nebraska in amending the state constitution to remove this clause,” Helen Regan, one of the few Riverside County residents who supported ACA 3, said in her comment Feb. 9.
Kyle Sweeney, another supporter, wrote that slavery was not abolished, but merely nationalized.
“We steal labor and freedom from our people,” he said. “We uphold the roots of this practice with disproportionate arrests and sentencing of our Black, Hispanic, and Indidgenous community members. We build our institutions on stolen labor and call ourselves great.”
The Board of Supervisors decided March 9 to the remove it from the agenda for the third time in order to further revise the resolution’s approach because of the opposition’s full force during public comment.
You can also weigh in on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Kevin Jeffries – District 1
Twitter: @SupJeffries; Facebook: @SupervisorJeffries; Instagram: @rivcoyac_d1
Karen Spiegel – District 2
Twitter: @SupKarenSpiegel; Facebook: @SupervisorKarenSpiegel; Instagram: @supervisorkarenspiegel
Chuck Washington – District 3
Twitter: @SupWashington; Facebook: @supervisorchuckwashington; Instagram: @supervisorchuckwashington
V. Manuel Perez – District 4
Twitter: @SupVMPerez; Facebook: VManuelPerez4th; Instagram: @supervisorperez;
Jeff Hewitt – District 5
Twitter: @SupervisorHewitt; Facebook: @SupervisorHewitt; Instagram: @SupervisorHewitt