Is This “Involuntary Servitude”? 

When I was a kid, I heard an adult say that prisoners make license plates.

Since an adult said it, it had to be true.

This added to my knowledge about prisons, which then was as follows:

If you did something bad, you could be locked up in a prison, and make license plates.

I confess that until recently, I didn’t give much thought to what people in prisons do.  I’m sorry that there are people in prison, sorry that we need a prison system, and especially sorry when I read about wrongly convicted people.

But as to what kind of work prisoners did?

I didn’t think about it, until I read this recent article by San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Charles Clark:

This led me on a quest for more information, about prison workers in and outside of California.

I’ve now learned that the license plate part was and is true, according to this article:

“About 80% of license plates in the United States ARE made in about eight prisons.  Some of those prisons actually make plates for more than one state.”

And in my state:

According to the article:

“Behind the thick granite walls at Folsom State Prison lies a factory where inmates…manufacture every single license plate used in the state of California.

“Just over 120 employees make up the inmate workforce at the California Prison Industry Authority’s license plate factory – the only place license plates are made in the state.

“The factory operates from 7am to 3pm Monday through Thursday and produces between 45,000 and 50,000 plates a day, making it the largest producer of license plates in the United States.”

It turns out that inmates all over the country in state and federal prisons are working, and they’ve made or are making a variety of items including Books for the Blind, park benches and picnic tables, military clothing, canoes, road signs, and even wearing apparel for both prisoners and the public at Eastern Oregon Correctional Institute:

“Their commercial product line includes apparel with logo designs, blue jeans, jackets, work shirts, sweatshirts, T-shirts, hats and more…”

And according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons,

“Institution work assignments include employment in areas like food service or the warehouse, or work as an inmate orderly, plumber, painter, or groundskeeper.”

During the pandemic, some state-run prisons shifted to supplying government agencies with essentials to battle the coronavirus, like hand sanitizer and protective gear. 

And during California’s wildfire season – this hit particularly close to home – for years, thousands of male, female and teenage inmates have worked as firefighters.

California inmate firefighters, 2015.

One of those firefighters, Amika Mota, was featured in the above Charles Clark Union-Tribune article. 

The firefighting came later; in 2008, when Mota arrived at the California Institution for Women, she refused her first assignment “because the head of the program was abusive to other inmates.”

The punishment, according to the article:

“For a time she lost access to visitation and phones and couldn’t see or talk to family or friends.  She also wasn’t allowed to buy from the commissary, so no more snacks or hygiene items.  And, for good measure, she was put in ‘the hole’ [solitary confinement] for 45 days…”

I was shocked.

In my ignorance, I assumed that prisoners volunteered to work and could request their assignments.  Working, I thought, was a good idea:  It could help alleviate boredom, and possibly provide useful work skills, a sense of accomplishment, and a feeling that they’re contributing to society.

To learn that some prisoners are required to work and required to accept their work assignments, and punished if they refused…

They’re already in prison.  Isn’t that punishment enough?

Yes, it’s true that some prison work – like firefighting in California – is done on a voluntary basis.  But in Mota’s case and many others…

Some people have names for it:

“Forced labor.”

“Involuntary servitude.”

“A vestige of slavery.”

And it’s legal, as written into the United States Constitution.  The 13th Amendment, ratified in 1865, says,

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” 

Involuntary servitude is also currently allowed under Article 1 of the California state constitution, if that servitude is being used to punish a crime.

One could argue that prisoners are paid so it’s not slavery, and it’s true – though some inmates are not paid, many prisoners are.

As a sampling – according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, “Inmates earn 12 cents to 40 cents per hour for these work assignments.”  California’s inmate firefighters “earn as little as $2.90 per day.”  In some prisons, making license plates pays “35 cents to 90 cents per hour.”

And those wages can be garnished for victim compensations, parole violation fines, and/or to offset the cost of a prisoner’s incarceration. 

So prisoners aren’t making much money – but somebody is:


The taxpayers.

According to an August 2020 New York Times article, “Using incarcerated firefighters [in California] saves the state’s taxpayers an estimated $100 million a year.”

And how about those “45,000 and 50,000” license plates made at Folsom State Prison?  No union wages, no benefits, just more savings for us taxpayers.

That’s only in California’s prisons, and only the firefighters and license plate makers.  Now think all state and federal prisons in all 50 states, and how those savings add up.

The more I learned, the more complex this topic became:  How those few words in the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution enabled the post-Civil War South to continue profiting from the forced labor of the formerly enslaved.  The disproportionate number of minorities doing forced labor due to the disproportionate numbers of minorities in prisons.  Then there’s the whole issue of inmate workers in privately held for-profit prisons.

And this, from a 2017 Los Angeles Times Op-Ed by a former inmate:

The writer said, in part:

“I consider most of the criticism lobbed at prison labor – that it’s a form of slavery, a capitalist horror show – unfair, and even counterproductive in the effort to reform the justice system.

“My prison job made me feel like I was fulfilling my existential duty to society: I was contributing…Any change for good that happened within me while I was incarcerated grew out of my job.”

But…it appears that in California, an opportunity is coming to lessen my ignorance and gain a better understanding of this complex topic.  From the Charles Clark article:

“In mid-June, a bill dubbed ACA 3 moved out of the State Assembly’s Public Safety committee…It aims to amend California’s Constitution with a ballot measure [in 2022] that would completely ban involuntary servitude.

“If ACA 3 gets approved in the Assembly and Senate and is passed by California voters, our state would join several others that have banned such labor in prisons and jails over the last five years, including Colorado, Nebraska and Utah.  At least 12 other states also have similar legislation or ballot measures in progress…”

I anticipate much debate about, and media coverage of, the progress of ACA 3, and I plan to be much better informed before California’s November 2022 election.

I’ve also recently learned that in December 2020, legislation dubbed the “Abolition Amendment” was introduced by Democrats in the U.S. House and Senate.  It failed to gain traction before the session’s end, but last month lawmakers reintroduced legislation to revise the 13th Amendment, according to this article:

The article reminds us,

“Constitutional amendments require approval by two-thirds of the House and Senate, as well as ratification by three-quarters of state legislatures.”

So, a possible amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

A possible constitutional amendment in California, and 12 other states.

To decide if it’s…

“Involuntary servitude”?

Or an “existential duty to society”?

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