Modern-day slavery still exists in U.S. prisons, including in CA, in the form of involuntary servitude – with incarcerated people forced to work against their will.
These are their stories...
by LaRene Austin - Current slave at Central California Women's Facility
My experience with indentured servitude is very dark. I feel like you dedicate your time and skills to the PIA industry, providing quality work and learning new skills of the trade and you don’t benefit from it. I have worked PIA Fabric, silkscreen, and Dental and each job has its own dangerous exposures. You do skilled work that makes a profit, sometimes working long hours to meet deadlines with a pay grade of .35 cents. These jobs put you at risk to lose fingers and damage your eyesight and expose you daily to cancer causing agents. The skills you gain at these jobs are useful and pay for those skills in the free world is great pay, but inmates that work these jobs should at least be able to pay their restitution or obtain their basic hygiene to comply with CDCR grooming standards. These jobs cause long term health problems for the inmates and no proper medical care. I feel they don’t have to pay us a grand amount, but do pay us for our skill and labor. Plus no job should be forced on anyone at this point. You can’t say you're rehabilitating someone by oppression and forcing them to do something they don’t want to do.
Fighting Fires for $1/hour
by Aaliyah Muhammad - Retired slave
My name is Aaliyah Muhammad, I’m employed with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and a proud member of All of Us or None. When I was a slave of the state I was known as W029515. I was an inmate firefighter at Camp Puerta La Cruz, in Warner Springs, CA. The training we received was hiking. We would hike 3 ½ miles several times a week. We depended on and learned from the more experienced inmate firefighters once fire season began. While I was at fire camp my pay slot was at the top of the CDCR pay scale. While others earned 8 cents, 11 cents, 34 cents per hour in their designated pay slots, I earned a whopping $1/hour, but only while fighting a fire. If we stayed overnight, (where we slept on the ground) I earned $24 for that day. These are the same furious fires that caused fatalities and loss of homes and structures, that we have been experiencing here in California in the past few years. Inmates, too, fight those fires. I was blessed to have family and friends support me while I was at the camp. But there were other women who didn’t have the support and no funds available until there was a fire. How far can $24 dollars go, when Dollar Store items are sold on the commissary for $4.95? When fire season starts this year, and you see coverage on your local news, look for the people in the orange jumpsuits. These people are your inmate firefighters on the front line, risking their lives for $1/hour. Keep your eyes open, because in California, punishment makes slavery look invisible. I support Assembly Member Wilson’s “End Slavery in CA Act” and you should too.
Unable to Refuse
by John Cannon - Retired slave
My first time going to an adult prison was when I was 16 years old. I was arrested and charged with robbery for stealing pizza and a money pouch from a pizza delivery man. I was subsequently certified as an adult by the court and sent to the Department of Corrections.
Upon arrival at the facility, I was strip-searched and immediately assigned a job position (yard labor). At the time, I needed soap, food, deodorant, etc. and I didn’t have family support or any money coming in. I was looking forward to working and making some money that I could use for commissary. That is, until I found out from an older guy that was in there with me that I wasn’t going to be making any money. He told me that our labor is either for free or we would only receive pennys an hour. I told him that I wouldn’t work for free and how that wasn’t even legal. That’s when he informed me that if I refused to work I would be punished for refusing. He also explained to me that the Constitution still allows involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime.
For the next 8 years I worked for next to nothing. Sweating in the warehouses, laboring in the sun, and working almost until collapsing on a mountain fighting wildfires. While fighting those wildfires, we worked alongside firefighters who weren’t incarcerated. I remember our crew working just as hard, if not harder than the hotshot crews. Yet, they were making more money in an hour than we made in a month.
By the time I was released at 24 years old, I had a skewed view of the workforce. Needless to say, I was let out of prison with nothing but the clothes on my back. I was in an even worse position than when I went in. I was still broke, but now I was a felon with no real “experience” because those prison jobs don’t count in the “real” world. It was then when I understood that the prison industrial complex is a well-oiled machine. It works just the way it was set up to work, which is to keep more people incarcerated in order to exploit us for free or cheap labor.