California was admitted to the Union in 1850 under the condition that slavery be prohibited within its borders. This means as long as California has been a state, it has been a “free” one — a designation that, for much of California’s history, has endured in name only.
Just months prior to becoming a “free” state, California passed the Act for the Government and Protections of Indians — a law whose harmless-sounding name obscured its vile purpose. Under this Act, Indigenous people in California could be detained for vagrancy, a subjective crime that was easy to charge and difficult to deny. Employers in search of cheap labor could fund the release of detained Indigenous people, who were then compelled to work, uncompensated, to pay off their debts. Indigenous children were also often made to work without pay.
These forms of labor were called “apprenticeship,” a euphemistic term that facilitated the enslavement and murder of thousands of Indigenous people within the bounds of state law.
Two years later, California enacted the Fugitive Slave Law, another regressive piece of legislation that called into question the legitimacy of the young “free” state. Under this law, Black slaves who had entered California prior to 1850 remained the rightful property of their past enslavers. And just like that, many free Black people were forced back into slavery.
Between the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians and the Fugitive Slave Law, California helped wealthy white landowners strengthen their grasp on free, coerced labor.
In 1851, the state legislature passed a law that allowed for the California prison system to be leased out to private entities in ten-year contracts. Under this system, lessees were responsible for housing, feeding, and clothing the prison population, and, in exchange, they were rewarded the profits of convict labor. It was under the oversight of James Estill, the first private owner of California’s prison system, that San Quentin State Prison was built.
This private management experiment proved to be inhumane and unsuccessful, and the state resumed control by the end of the decade. Upon transition of ownership, California launched the contract-system, where the state would sell convict labor to private enterprises for a fee. Both the state and private companies generously profited from the contract-system, while incarcerated people were paid pennies, if anything at all.
That system was also short-lived. In 1879, the state legislature adopted Article X, Section 6 of the CA Constitution, which abolished the contract system in prisons. Still, prison administrators and private enterprises quickly found ways to circumvent the prohibitions made in the constitution and continue to exploit prison labor.
With the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, slavery and involuntary servitude were abolished nationwide. Hidden within this amendment, however, was a very intentional loophole: involuntary servitude remained legal as punishment for a crime.
The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution made federal law a decree that had existed, in similar terms, in Article I of the California Constitution for nearly two decades: “Neither slavery, nor involuntary servitude, unless for the punishment of crimes, shall ever be tolerated in this State.”
Embedded in the very inception of the state of California was the notion that incarcerated people, apparently undeserving of the same rights granted to others, should not be protected against forced labor.
San Quentin almost immediately transitioned to the piece-price system, where private enterprises provide prisons with raw materials for incarcerated people to manufacture, and manufactured goods are returned to the contractor. Folsom State Prison adopted the public-account system, in which a prison buys raw materials for incarcerated people to manufacture that the prison sells on the free market.
Worried about competition, free laborers pushed back against both of these systems.
Today, involuntary servitude remains common in prisons across California. In recent years, incarcerated people have helped fight California fires — a difficult and dangerous job for which they are inadequately compensated.
Many incarcerated people are also forced to work for private entities or a variety of prison industries, which are overseen by the California Prison Industry Authority.
Over the past century, the penal labor system has evolved in order to meet competing demands, but for incarcerated people, the result is consistently the same: they are paid little to nothing for performing difficult labor under threat of punishment.
All the while, the annual dollar value of prison labor across the United States numbers in the billions.