My Story: Jesse Burleson


I spent 31 years inside of California state prisons, from 1987 until 2018, and I can recall the slavery process vividly. I had chains wrapped around my waist and my wrists were fastened to them. I was told to kneel on a wooden box so that my legs could be shackled at my ankles restricting my movement to small, short steps. I was placed on a bus along with dozens of other shackled men, mostly Black like me, and driven to a prison facility where there were thousands more Black men waiting. I was taken to a hearing and told that my name would be placed on a worker’s waiting list. I was informed of the job assignments I was eligible for and asked what type of work I was interested in. When I asked what the pay rates were, I was informed that most of the jobs I was eligible for were “non-pay,” but some were 12- or 15-cents an hour. I was also informed that I would have my “privileges” (phone calls, yard time, dayroom time, canteen purchases) restricted if I had refused to work.

I personally opposed not being reasonably compensated for my labor and thought being paid 15 cents an hour were slave wages. I refused to work and was labeled in their files as a “management problem.”

It was during my seventh year of incarceration that I decided to work, but on my own terms. I had been in long enough to see what it was about so I only accepted job assignments that could benefit me in some way. For example, I worked in the kitchen (12 cents an hour) so I could prepare my own food; I worked as a teacher’s aide (no pay) so I could help others with their learning, I worked in the library ($36 a month) so I could access law books and use a word processor.

I recall at the kitchen job being “told” I must work seven days a week because the prison was on a lockdown. But when I got my check, it didn’t include payment for the extra days I had worked. Even though it was only 12 cents an hour, I filed a grievance on principle. At the end of the litigation process, I learned that the state of California was authorized by the state and federal constitutions to treat me as a slave! I had already figured that part out at my first hearing, but now I saw how they were able to get away with it. It was in the laws! It was in the constitution!

Our state’s slave population has increased over the past 25 years, as the mass incarceration boom has offered a profitable solution for government budgets. Where there had once been less than 10 prisons in the entire state, there are now over 30 prisons in California! And although incarcerated persons can no longer be classified as “slaves” under our state’s constitution, our systemic practice of slavery survives under the often-overlooked term in our constitution. “Involuntary servitude” is simply slavery under another name, and today, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation operates 70 factories, all operating using slave labor.