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Quest for Democracy and ACA 8: Prisoners paid as little as 64 cents a day

On May 22, in an annual event called Quest for Democracy (Q4D), hundreds of youth, families, advocates, and justice-impacted leaders from across California convened at Capitol Park in Sacramento. Led by formerly incarcerated people and their loved ones, attendees gather yearly to educate each other and elected officials, pushing for a shared legislative reform platform. All of Us or None, a grassroots organizing project of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children – and a strong partner of CJCJ – hosts the event. The co-founder of All of Us or None, Dorsey Nunn, developed the idea for Q4D to bring justice-impacted individuals to the center of the fight for change. Too often, individuals impacted or harmed by the system are left out of the conversation. And yet, these individuals have an invaluable wealth of experiential knowledge, understanding the obstructive and overly-punitive nature of the justice system far better than most. This event helps to center their voices. It empowers them to advocate for themselves and share their stories, speaking directly to policymakers and their staff. It also allows those in power who are not often privy to such a perspective to hear about these individuals’ struggles and successes and recognize their full humanity.

CJCJ policy team members Julia Hughes and Grecia Reséndez at the Capitol for Q4D.

This year, Q4D focused on 13 bills, including policies on incarceration-related fees and fines, family unity, and reentry. Participants joined in the morning, listening to speeches from fellow attendees and legislators. Assemblymember Matt Haney spoke on behalf of legislation he authored called Assembly Bill 1226, the Keep Families Close Act,” a critical bill signed into law by the Governor earlier this week. The bill will require incarcerated people in California to be placed as close as possible to where their kids live. A youth attendee spoke passionately following Haney’s speech and shared the challenges he has faced having a father in prison hundreds of miles away. Interwoven between these powerful speeches were lighthearted moments, including poetry and an upbeat rendition of the All of Us or None theme song.

After lunch, participants marched to the Capitol. Many candidly discussed their experiences inside the prison system, working difficult jobs for little to no compensation and often significant personal harm and injury. Others shared ongoing challenges and successes as they navigated life outside the prison walls. A bill that was the focus of one such legislative meeting was ACA 8, a proposed amendment to the state constitution addressing the prison labor exception to the ban on involuntary servitude and slavery. The 13th Amendment to the US Constitution (and California’s analog Amendment), which prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude, explicitly excludes those detained due to criminal convictions. This exception allows for incarcerated individuals to be required to work and forced to deal with unjust working conditions, including no required minimum wage standards. As a result, most incarcerated individuals in California make between eight cents and 37 cents an hour – as little as 64 cents a day (Prison Policy Initiative, 2017). Formerly incarcerated attendees at Q4D spoke about feeling demoralized day after day performing labor-intensive work and, yet still, being unable to contribute financially to their families.

As a result of the prison labor exception, prisoners are stripped of even the most basic protections against labor exploitation and abuse, including overtime protections and workplace safety guarantees. Incarcerated people have no right to choose what type of work they do and are left vulnerable to prison administrators who dictate work assignments, many of which are hazardous, such as maintenance, manufacturing, construction, and even firefighting. Despite the many dangerous positions incarcerated individuals hold, they rarely receive formal training and often are forced to work without standard protective gear. Prisons keep relatively poor records of incarcerated workers injured on the job. However, over a recent four-year period, the California Prison Industry Authority (CALPIA), the agency overseeing the state’s prison work programs, reported more than 600 work-related injuries (ACLU, 2022). At the event, an attendee spoke powerfully about the tremendous toll working in a prison kitchen for over a decade took on her body. After performing such physically demanding work six days a week for the entirety of her sentence, she needed knee surgery after being released. Formerly incarcerated individuals also often struggle to find employment in the same positions they held when in prison, deemed unqualified by many employers. Multiple formerly incarcerated individuals lamented that they gained years of experience in a field of work with little to no transferable potential in the outside job market. This reality makes acclimating back into society and gaining employment much more challenging.

Performing these work assignments is required of most incarcerated individuals. In California, all non-disabled prisoners are required to either work or participate in rehabilitative programming or a combination of the two. Q4D attendees shared stories about the punishments that would follow if they could not work a particular day. They would often lose visits, the ability to see their children, and even be threatened with added time to their sentences.

Incarcerated individuals want to be productive in prison while simultaneously needing to earn money to send home to loved ones. Most also want to develop professional skills that are useful for employment after their release. However, this does not make it acceptable to hold individuals in solitary confinement or deny other necessary benefits because they can’t or won’t work on behalf of the state for almost no pay. Prison work should provide meaningful experience and skills transferable outside incarceration; that would be true rehabilitation rather than simply reinforcing punishment.

Having failed to pass a similar bill in the legislature last year, California is one of sixteen states still permitting involuntary servitude as a form of criminal punishment. ACA 8 will not bar incarcerated people from working and does not set wages or dictate specific working conditions. But its passing could pave the way to give people in prison more freedom over the work they do. This bill carries heavy moral weight. Its passage will send the crucial, overdue message that California believes involuntary servitude, in any capacity, is unacceptable.

It is impossible to adequately address and reform criminal justice policy in the state, and the country as a whole, without the critical engagement and participation from communities most impacted by our justice system. Advocacy is strongest when the full story is told, and that is only possible when we have the inspiring voices of people, like the participants at Q4D, shedding light on the consequences our justice system has had on them and their communities. Continuing to replicate events like Quest for Democracy in other spaces is critical, helping to build a new generation of justice leaders who come to the work from a place of lived experience and passion.


Captive Labor: Exploitation of Incarcerated Workers. ACLU. The University of Chicago Law School Global Human Rights Clinic, 2017. https://​www​.aclu​.org/​s​i​t​e​s​/​d​e​f​a​u​l​t​/​f​i​l​e​s​/​f​i​e​l​d​_​d​o​c​u​m​e​n​t​/2022 – 06-15-captivelaborresearchreport.pdf

Sawyer, Wendy. How much do incarcerated people earn in each state? Prison Policy Initiative, 2017. https://​www​.pris​on​pol​i​cy​.org/​b​l​o​g​/​2017​/​04​/​10​/​w​ages/

Scribner, Herb. 4 states reject slavery-related language in constitution via ballot measures. Axios, 2022. https://​www​.axios​.com/​2022​/​11​/​09​/​s​l​a​v​e​r​y​-​l​a​n​g​u​a​g​e​-​b​a​l​l​o​t​-​m​e​a​s​u​r​e​s​-​2022​-​m​i​d​terms

Formerly incarcerated and system impacted community stakeholders in attendance at Q4D.

Author’s Bio- Julia Hughes is a communications and policy intern for CJCJ. She is a recent graduate of UC Berkeley with a focus on criminal justice. She plans to pursue a legal career advocating for youth in the juvenile system.