The 13th Amendment of the US Constitution makes an exception to the abolition of slavery in order to permit the use of “involuntary servitude” as punishment for a crime. The modern system of mass incarceration depends on this exception to justify paying millions of incarcerated people subminimum wages that many advocates say is virtually indistinguishable from forms of slavery. Various US states also have their own constitutional “exception clauses” that mirror the language of the 13th Amendment, providing an additional layer of legal justification for the exploitation of prisoners. Jeronimo Aguilar and John Cannon of the organizations Legal Services for Prisoners with Children—All of Us or None join Rattling the Bars to discuss the years-long campaign to eliminate the exception clauses in California.
Studio Production: Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Mansa Musa: The 13th Amendment of the US Constitution legitimized slavery with its exception clause, which states that slavery is legal for anyone convicted of a crime. The prison population far exceeds the number of people that were held in slavery.
When you look at the number of people on parole or probation who had other legal obligations to the various states, the impact of the exception clause becomes clear. Here to talk about the 13th Amendment and the organizational push to change it in California are Jeronimo Aguilar and John Cannon of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, All of Us or None. Welcome to Rattling the Bars.
Jeronimo Aguilar: Thank you so much, man. It’s an honor. I appreciate the opportunity for us to come back on here and talk some truth.
Mansa Musa: Okay. We’ll start with you, John. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your organization.
John Cannon: My name is John Cannon. I’m here at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, and I’m an All of Us or None organizer. I am formally incarcerated. I did 10 years in the system starting when I was 16 years old. I was certified as an adult and sent to an adult prison. When I got out, I was given the opportunity to join the Elder Freeman Policy Fellowship, at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. And now, I’m the outreach coordinator and the organizer at All of Us or None.
Mansa Musa: Okay. That’s good work. Jeronimo?
Jeronimo Aguilar: Yes, sir. Yes, sir. So, similar to John, I joined the Policy Fellowship going on three years ago now. I was fortunate enough to dodge the plantation per se, but spent a substantial time in county jail and saw the ills of mass incarceration throughout my family. Generations of us have been incarcerated and stuck in the system.
Yeah, I joined the fellowship and it’s been hitting the ground running since. I work as a policy analyst now for Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. We’ve been around for a long time. The organization celebrated its 45th anniversary and All of Us or None, we’ve been around for 20 years now. So we have a legacy, sir.
Mansa Musa: Right. As you identified, y’all been around 45-odd years?
Jeronimo Aguilar: Yes, sir.
Mansa Musa: Okay. Let’s start with this here. Let’s frame this conversation about getting people to understand what the 13th Amendment is and more importantly, broaden the conversation about when we talk about the prison-industrial complex and mass incarceration, how it’s interconnected with all aspects of anybody that’s in the criminal injustice system. Do you want to go first, John?
John Cannon: So, the 13th Amendment is in the Constitution and it gives the right for slavery to still exist, but it exists under, I would say, sneaky ways. So, they say once you’re convicted of a crime, then you’re legally able to be a slave or involuntary servitude. So, that’s the 13th Amendment. A lot of states replicated the 13th Amendment and put it into their own Constitutions under different laws. And here in California, it’s under Section –
Jeronimo Aguilar: Article 1.
John Cannon: – Article 1, Section 6.
Mansa Musa: Okay. Jeronimo, go ahead and flush that out a little bit more.
Jeronimo Aguilar: Yeah, yeah. So, like John mentioned, man, it’s different in every state. So, in some states, it’s not there at all. That’s not to say they’re not practicing slavery in those states; They defer to the Federal Constitution.
Mansa Musa: Right.
Jeronimo Aguilar: Yeah. Some states took the extra step of codifying it in their own Constitution. So, California is one of those states that codified it through Article, 1 Section 6. It’s a little different in California being that it says that, “Slavery is prohibited, involuntary servitude is prohibited except for punishment for a crime.”
So, it gives the opposition, I would say, a little more insulation to say, oh, well, there’s no exception to slavery. The exception is involuntary servitude. So, one of the campaign slogans and narratives that we’ve been pushing in California is that involuntary servitude is slavery. It’s another word for it.
Mansa Musa: Once we look at the 13th Amendment, as you say, each state adopted it in their form and manner. What we notice is that we call it the exception clause, being the exception that I cannot do this except if this exists. And this exists if a person has been allegedly duly convicted of a crime.
Now, in terms of the prison population that’s subjected to the exception clause, how do y’all see the California landscape? What’s the overall prison population in California if y’all have any knowledge of that?
Jeronimo Aguilar: Yeah. It’s at about 100,000 right now, the population. But as far as the extraction of labor and exploitation, it’s like every other state. They have all different jobs in there, different industries. You’ve got what’s called CALPIA, it’s the Prison Industry Authority, they contract out with corporations and the like. And they come in and they pay pennies on the dollar, man, to get labor that, otherwise, they’d have to pay at least minimum wage for.
So, one of the things I wanted to mention, Mansa, is that we’ve been intentional about making sure folks understand that the constitutional amendment doesn’t automatically achieve wages for folks. We have a wage campaign. We learned this as we ran ACA 3 a couple of years ago. We lost in the Senate out here. And the opposition was saying, it’s going to cost too much money to do this. We agree that slavery is wrong and we need to change the Constitution, but it’ll cost the state $1.5 billion. It’s the fiscal analysis that they gave us.
It’s a false argument because changing the Constitution doesn’t automatically mean that you get wages. What we did is we introduced wage legislation at the same time to say, look, if you want to talk about wages, that’s fine. We can argue how much folks should get paid and all of those things. It’s a good dialogue to have but that’s attached to our other Bill, AB1516, which is our wage campaign.
When it comes to the issue of involuntary servitude and slavery, it’s about consent. We’re trying to introduce the idea that incarcerated people deserve the right to consent to labor and should have the right to withdraw their consent at any time. It’s not a part of their punishment or their sentence. It’s not the 1800s where they say, you’re sentenced to 20 years and 20 years of hard labor. That’s what it is in practice.
Mansa Musa: John, you said that you did eight years but you went in as a juvenile? And they certified you as an adult. Our audience has a tendency to think if you did the crime, then you should do the time, but tell our audience exactly what type of work you did while you were in prison, and what skills you came out with, if any, that helped you adjust in society?
John Cannon: Right. So, I did 10 years altogether. When I first went in, I was 16. The first thing they do is you come from the county jail, you get to prison, they strip you naked in front of everybody, and it’s reminiscent –
Mansa Musa: Like you were on an auction block. Like you’re on an auction block.
John Cannon: – Yeah. Like an auction block. It’s reminiscent of slavery. The next thing they do is assign you a job. Me being 16, at that time, I didn’t have family support and I was homeless when I was younger so I didn’t have any money.
When they assigned the job, I was excited that I was going to be able to get some commissary or something. Then come to find out, you only get 8 cents an hour. But the thing is they assign you to any job; You don’t pick the job. They assign you. I did yard labor, I started as. Then I worked in the kitchen, for long hours. Then I did a porter. I did all types of jobs. Eventually, I ended up going to a fire camp and I fought fires in the state of California.
Mansa Musa: Right, right. When I’m looking at the job landscape, at no time were you allowed minimum wage and at no time were you allowed to buy into the social security system where when you get your quarter. 10 years, you got enough quarters that when you came out, you probably could have gotten SSI or social security benefits. This is the part of the 13th Amendment that helps to validate the slavery concept.
But more importantly, as you said, when you went in, you didn’t have any skills, you didn’t have a job. I went in when I was 20. I did 48 years. I was functionally illiterate. I was a drug addict. When I got in the system I was being rescued from, like George Jackson said, you’re going to find your unclaimed body in the alley or you die in the prison by the death of a thousand cuts.
But the fact of the matter is that this is the population that they draw on, it’s the same population they drew on when they had the Black code laws. When they first put this 13th Amendment in there, when they had Black code laws where if they found you walking down the street and asked you where you going and you say, I’m going home or say where you live, I live two blocks down, a mile and a half down. Oh, you got caught. You trespassing on somebody’s property, and lock you up.
But Jeronimo, going forward, let’s unpack the ACA 8. You mentioned that this is an initiative that y’all have been systematically trying to get some traction on this issue. Give us a historical perspective and walk us up to where we at now if you can.
Jeronimo Aguilar: Yes, sir. Yes, sir. We introduced ACA 3 with Senator Kamlager, who’s now, I believe a congresswoman over on your side of town there, Mansa, in DC. But at that time, she was a senator here in California and she introduced ACA 3. And we were able to successfully get it to the last leg of the legislature, which is the Senate floor.
I’m sorry, at that time she was an assembly member. So, it started in the assembly and it moved on to the Senate and it got to the Senate floor. And ironically, man, it was in June when everybody was celebrating Juneteenth. So, we were getting that message hard to let folks, hey, while you’re out there barbecuing and having your cookouts, man, realize that slavery is still happening. Still snatching up our people, man.
We were hopeful that we’d be able to pass it in June and have that celebration with our folks, man. But as I said, there was a real damning fiscal analysis that was put out by what’s called the Appropriations Committee out here, where they look at what’s the money breakdown and how it’s going to affect the economy of California. It’s the same argument that you could hear back in the 18th century, the economic part of it. And that’s why we can’t end plantation slavery. It’s the same argument being made today saying, hey, we can’t end this prison slavery because of the money.
And so, there was an analysis that said it would cost $1.5 billion. I would say that and a combination of misinformation that was being put out there, there were a lot of characters, legislators, and elected officials that were arguing that it was an ambiguous amendment, that it could have potentially a lot of different, what they call the unintended consequences.
They weren’t opposing it straight out by saying, oh, we don’t agree with this. They were trying to underhandedly oppose it. We had a lot of folks who didn’t vote no on it, but they didn’t come out and vote. They abstained from voting. So, we lost ACA 3 and it was damaging, man. It was damaging to the movement but it didn’t stop our resolve.
We went back to the drawing board and we came back. We found a very strong champion and assemblymember, Lori Wilson, who’s the chair of the legislative Black Caucus out here in California. And we came back with ACA 8. It’s a blessing in disguise, I’d say because since ACA 3, we’ve learned a lot about the Constitution and about the language. We’ve been able to see some of these other states that have passed amendments, but they haven’t had the effect that we’ve wanted. Like in Colorado and other states, where the plantation is continuing to flourish even after the amendment has passed.
It’s challenged us in California to say, we don’t want a symbolic change of the Constitution. We don’t want, oh, we’re getting this nasty language out of the Constitution and we can go on about our way. If this doesn’t have a material effect on incarcerated people, then we’re not going to support it. That’s the challenge that we’ve put out there, that we got to have strong language, we’ve got to have consent, and incarcerated people got to have a new right once we pass this thing.
Mansa Musa: All right. In that regard, John, because you say you deal with the advocacy aspect, how are y’all mobilizing the prison population in terms of getting your families involved? I recognize what you’re saying, Jeronimo, that lesson learned, go back when you lose a battle, it’s only a battle. It’s not the war, so lesson learned. Go back and restrategize on how you want to take and approach it and then get a language that’s more policy-orientated in terms of application as opposed to some symbolism like, oh yeah, this is not in there no more, and hail to the king.
But, John, talk about what y’all are doing in terms of getting the prison population to be involved in mobilizing or helping mobilize the families to be able to have a voice in this decision. Because we know that the prison-industrial complex and mass incarceration devastate the family.
John Cannon: Right. When All of Us or None was started, it was started by formerly incarcerated people to give us a platform to raise our voices. So, we do have a lot of in-custody members as well as members outside.
So, we send a monthly newsletter to our members. We’re interactive with our members about what policies we’re pushing and what needs to be done from the inside and the outside. We’re involving our members on the inside with their voices. A lot of the communications that we’re pushing out here are personal stories from our members on the inside to show people on the outside what slavery looks like today, and what effects it has on a person, and on their family that are on the outside.
A lot of people get incarcerated and are the breadwinners of their families, some of these people. And they’re going down and they’re working 30 years. Working, working. They’re not able to take care of their family but they’re working. It’s not like they’re begging for a chance it’s that they’re working. So, they should be able to take care of their family.
So, we’re uplifting a lot of their voices and stories even as we’re going through the legislation because a lot of senators or assemblypersons, don’t know how it is to be inside there. They don’t see it from that perspective. So, being able to lift those voices and to give people another look and a different insight on the inside. It’s powerful to be able to include our members and to activate their family members on the outside and mobilize them.
Mansa Musa: Right. I can see the effect of the information coming out of the institution. Like you say, the personal stories give evidence, and become a more evidence-based argument than a feel-good argument. I’ve been locked up for 40 years or I’ve been locked up for 38 years, I’m working in the industry, and I’m not afforded the opportunity to get minimum wage, but the few pennies that I have, I’m sending out to my family to try to help them. And to try to stop my family from becoming dependent on the system, which is a collateral aspect of the prison-industrial complex and mass incarceration.
Jeronimo, going forward, where are we standing now with ACA 8?
Jeronimo Aguilar: Yes, sir. So, we were able to clear the assembly this past year; 2023. So, the session ended but we were able to get the bill through the assembly floor. Now we have to clear the Senate. We got the Senate to clear, which was our big fight last time. So, we’re gearing up for that and getting ready for the Senate battle.
But we have to get through the Senate by June of 2025 for us to qualify this thing for the November ballot. And we want to get this on the November ballot because it’s an election year, which means that we will have more turnout from our people.
Also, we’re doing a lot: a lot of voter registration, a lot of voter education. We’re in what’s called the low voter turnout or the low propensity voters which is the barrios, ghettos, the hoods, and the places that are marginalized and ignored. So, we’re going into the trenches to make sure that our folks know that this is huge, man. This could be the first time that we have a chance to vote on the issue of slavery in our lifetime.
Mansa Musa: Right. And the more important the narrative is, the more impact that this policy change going to have. We know that if I’m on parole or if I’m on probation, I’m still under the guise of the 13th Amendment. If I’ve been duly convicted of a crime until my obligation to the state no longer exists, I can be subjected to whatever they tell me to do. They could subject me to say, that one of the conditions of your parole and probation is to go fight fires. One of the conditions of your parole and probation is to go somewhere and do free labor.
It’s not like that. I have a right to say I’m not going to do that. Or if I owe court costs, one of the conditions of paying my court costs would be to do involuntary servitude or work that I don’t have any control over or I’m not getting paid for. In the District of Columbia, prisoners have the right to vote. Is this the same in California? Does the prison population have the right to vote in California, John?
John Cannon: No. Prisoners don’t have the right to vote. Incarcerated folks that are in county jail, and prisoners in county jail can vote. A few years ago, we were able to restore the right to vote for people on parole. But anybody who’s incarcerated in the state prison cannot vote.
Mansa Musa: Okay. Those two mechanisms right there, because you got a large population that’s out on parole, what we call paper, and you got a large population that’s in them detention centers made the white wealthy, so we know you got a lot of people that are locked up in the county jails. How are y’all networking with them, John?
John Cannon: So, for our people on parole, we’re doing outreach, raising awareness, and doing voter education, letting people know how important it is. Because when we did restore that right, it restored it to about 50,000 people on parole.
With the county jails, that’s another fight that we’re having. Although the right is given to vote, they don’t make it easily accessible to vote in these county jails. We’re fighting now to be able to make it accessible for people to vote. So, that’s another part of the fight right there.
Mansa Musa: Go ahead, Jeronimo.
Jeronimo Aguilar: Yeah. I would like to add real quick, Mansa if I could.
Mansa Musa: Go ahead.
Jeronimo Aguilar: We’re in the process as well… There’s a bill called ACA 4 and ACA 4 would give the right to incarcerated folks in prison to be able to vote. So, we’re trying to catch up to y’all in DC with ACA 4. It’s been introduced by Assemblymember Isaac Bryan. He’s a great champion. We’re very hopeful that we can champion that soon.
Mansa Musa: As we close out, John, what do you want our audience to know about the fight, going forward? And how they can support what’s going on with y’all?
John Cannon: I want everybody to know that this fight is not only about people who are incarcerated. This fight is about everybody. It’s for all of humanity. This is a humanitarian issue. And like back in the slavery days or right now when slavery was back when it was on plantations, you could think like that, how did people sit by and let this happen? Well, even to this day slavery is going on, and we can’t sit by and let it happen.
And if you do want to get involved, you could check us out on prisonerswithchildren.org. You could become a member. We have a membership. We have chapters in 32 different cities across America. So, you can go on our website and check us out, All of Us or None.
Mansa Musa: Okay. Jeronimo, you got the last word on this. As you close out, emphasize how important it is for people to be aware of this form of slavery, as we know it.
Jeronimo Aguilar: Yes, sir. Yes, sir. I didn’t get a chance to touch on the history of California. So, if I could real quick.
Mansa Musa: Go ahead, go ahead. Yeah.
Jeronimo Aguilar: I want folks to understand and be educated that California was never a free state. They talk about that; The folks in California love to talk about the South and, oh, we’re not like those Confederate states and all that stuff. But the reality is that Indigenous people have been enslaved in California since the Europeans came onto this land.
You could look back at the 1850 Act for Government and Protection of Indians. These were statutes and legislations that were put out that were vagrancy laws. You had the Greaser Act and these are all different laws that were put in place that meant that if you were caught loitering, you were caught unemployed, you were caught spitting on the sidewalk, petty stuff like that, you would be criminalized and your labor would be extracted.
There were vibrant slave markets in LA and all across the state of Indigenous people, and later, our African brothers and sisters. So, I love to make sure folks know that California has a lot of wrongs to right. You know what I mean? As far as the history, we’re not any better than any other state, man. We have a very, very illustrious history with slavery and it’s continued to this day. That’s why we’re the fifth-largest economy in the world and the prison-industrial complex is a huge part of that.
There were the red codes out here in California that predated the Black codes. Our Black and Brown connection and struggle are tied through colonization. We’ve been riding together since back then. So, it’s important that African and Indigenous peoples today lead the struggle to end this, being that in California, we make up 70% of the incarcerated population.
To close it out, ACA 8, we got the last leg of this struggle to get through so that we can get this on the ballot. Please mobilize and get involved. This is not just in California, but this is a movement that’s going across the whole country. So, wherever you’re at, wherever you’re hearing this, tap in with either an organization like ours, All of Us or None, the End Slavery in California Act. There are lots of organizations and folks out there that are pushing this, even in other states.
We created a campaign called ABC, Abolish Bondage Collectively, and started that in California. But now we have ABC National where we’re organizing in Kentucky, Wisconsin, Philadelphia, and all over the country. So, we implore people, man, get involved. Let’s make sure that we end this legacy and let’s make sure that this happens in our lifetime. That we don’t pass this ugly and very oppressive stuff down to our children because it’s not fair. It’s not right. And like John said, this is a human rights issue. It’s not an economic issue. It’s not a criminal justice issue. This is a human rights issue.
Mansa Musa: All right. Thank you. There you have it. We like to remind people that we’re talking about humanity here. We’re not, cry me a river about people that have been convicted of a crime. We’re talking about a country that always goes around the world and talks about everybody else’s dirty laundry and how they’re treating their citizens.
But we have in the US where slavery was founded in the form that we know it. We have it right here in America, right this day where they have established an exception clause in the US Constitution that allows them to continue to enslave people under the guise of being duly convicted of a crime.
But then when you look at a lot of the crimes that people allegedly have committed how many people have been exonerated and how faulty this criminal injustice system is, it stands to question why are we continuing down this path?
So, we implore everyone to support what’s going on in California. We implore everyone to educate themselves on what’s going on with the 13th Amendment. We implore everyone that if you have a family member and the family member is locked up, chances are he or she is doing slave labor for slave wages. And this is not right. This is inhumane. And as John said, this is not cry me a river.
Thank y’all for coming on. We ask you to continue to support Rattling the Bars and The Real News. It’s only on Rattling the Bars and The Real News that you get this coverage where you have these men coming on explaining how they’re making a concerted effort to change a narrative that this country said was changed with the emancipation proclamation. Was it? Thank you very much. Continue to support Rattling the Bars and The Real News.