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Est. April 5, 2002
February 14, 2019 - Issue 776

An Inmate Minimum Wage
Can Give the Incarcerated
and the
Working Class a Break


"If rehabilitation truly is the goal, a good first step
would be to treat prisoner-workers as any other worker. 
When private prison corporations can shave the cost of
$69,000 per inmate in their prisons, it's easy to see why
they would be reluctant to give up those profits.  Paying
inmates a minimum wage is the last thing on their minds."

The debate about whether prison and jail inmates deserve a minimum wage continues as it has for years, with a local paper upstate in New York editorializing this month, “No higher wages for inmates” and that a bill that would provide a minimum wage of $3 per hour is “ridiculous.”

As the Daily Gazette of Schenectady noted, “The bill's sponsors say the legislation is designed to 'end the last vestiges of slavery.'” But it immediately also noted: “What it really ends is the last vestiges of fiscal sanity.” So, is it right to pay inmates for work or do they not deserve the dignity of a paycheck, as any other worker would receive?

As the debate becomes contentious, as illustrated by the above editorial, it's easy to fall back on the argument about the purpose of incarceration. Is it for punishment or rehabilitation? Should those who are thrown into prison or jail expect punishment while incarcerated or is the loss of their freedom enough punishment? Prison reformers will say that the latter applies, that losing one's freedom for a year or 10 years or 50 years is enough punishment, but that is another, quite complicated, question.

Inmates are paid for their work, but for the most part, they are paid a pittance. For most, they are paid pennies an hour (10 cents or 25 cents), but some are paid the munificent sum of as much as $1 an hour. When prison labor is farmed out to private companies, the federal government or county may be paid the equivalent of the prevailing minimum wage, but that is not a guarantee. Those who claim that a minimum wage for prisoners is ridiculous, because of the cost of incarceration for a single prisoner, according to the Daily Gazette, is $69,300 per year in New York, which has 51,000 convicted criminals behind bars.

Even if most of wages of an inmate were taken for his or her incarceration, it would not go far to pay for such a high cost of incarceration. That would not be the purpose of a minimum wage, but it would help pay for some of the prisoner’s costs of living, such as food from the commissary, mailing costs, visits and phone calls from family, among other expenses. Again, this would be a much wider debate about the purpose of incarceration: punishment or rehabiliation. Most states and the federal government now call their prisons “correctional facilities,” which indicates that they wish to help prepare inmates for crime-free life outside, when they are released, if they are ever released.

The paper quoted a recently-elected state lawmaker who is adamantly opposed to a minimum wage for inmates, stating: “State Sen. Daphne Jordan hit the nail on the head when she said that law-abiding workers shouldn't be supporting the wages of criminal workers. That's what this bill does. 'Welcome to Albany's bizarro world,'” she wrote.

The editorial noted that inmate-produced office furniture and other goods, under the trade name Corcraft, bring in $48 million in annual revenue to the state's general fund. That amount would not make a dent in the operation of the prison-industrial complex in New York, but it is a significant sum and it takes skills to make the furniture and other items that are sold to schools and local governments. Some would say that the skills involved are deserving of more than just a minimum wage, but the people who are doing that work continue to be paid low wages. The paper takes umbrage at the minimum wage bill's sponsors' declaration that its passage “would end the last vestiges of slavery.” This legislation has the possibility of raising anew the debate about the purpose of incarceration in the U.S.

If the purpose is correction or rehabiliation, would it not make sense for workers, regardless of their station, be paid the same as other workers? Taking some of those earnings to help pay for incarceration is yet another matter, but that should be worked out over time. That very well may be done in many jurisdictions, but the process is arcane and, in some cases may not be fully ethical or legal. Other developed nations are far ahead of the U.S. in dealing with those who commit crimes against society and other citizens, but in this country, the sole purpose seems to be punishment, with a few exceptions.

Another matter is the question of the effects of low or no-wage prison labor on the people in the general population who also work for low wages, through no fault of their own. Conservative and right-wing politicians and the general public like to say that “immigrants are taking American jobs” and therefore, should not be allowed into the country, except in small numbers. By the same reasoning, aren't low-wage prison jobs doing the same thing?

A few years ago, Chandra Bozelko, a former inmate, wrote in The National Review, that there are two types of prison jobs, those who work in the prison, itself, and those who are farmed out to private companies. Bozelko wrote: “Certainly, prison labor walks and quacks like slavery. The Prison Policy Initiative found that the average inmate’s wage is 93 cents an hour, and can go as low as 16 cents, when they’re employed by private companies that use prison labor. I was a correctional laborer for almost six years, working in a prison kitchen. After deductions, I earned between $5.25 and $8.75 per week.”

She served six years in Connecticut's only women's prison for non-violent crimes that were still on appeal at the time of the article. Those inmates who work for private companies are theoretically paid the minimum wage, but Bozelko pointed out that as much as 80 percent of an inmates wages can be taken for many reasons, lumped under what are called “LFOs,” or legal financial obligations, such as taxes, restitution, room and board, and other costs associated with the prisoner’s criminal processing and incarceration, which the prisoner can be made to repay. It doesn't leave much and it's not likely that the inmate worker sees the total before the LFOs are taken out.

In part, this is what prison strikes have been about over the past few decades, including the one that occurred in 2018. But, the overriding cause of strikes is that the inmate workers are treated as much lesser human beings by the entire system, the prison-industrial complex and the society at large. Most inmates will someday get out of prison and the recidivism rate of those who have money saved have a low rate of re-incarceration. More money, less recidivism. She also points out that private companies that hire inmate labor are not required to pay unemployment insurance, because prison labor is not considered “employment.” If they were considered employees, they would be entitled to unemployment insurance benefits, like any other worker, Bozelko wrote, another step in the direction of reentry into society and a much reduced chance that the worker will be back in prison.

The knee-jerk response that is seen in both the Daily Gazette editorial and new legislator Jordan is what is the usual one for any program that might benefit inmates in their attempts to learn skills, further their education, and work to earn enough to stay out of trouble after reentering society. Reforming the prison-industrial complex is a huge task and it will take courageous senators, representatives, other legislators, elected officials, and a sizable percentage of the people to make it happen.

There is a pile of money in the business and industry of incarceration and those who hold power over that system are very reluctant to give it up. New York State's Department of Corrections and Community Supervision says it is responsible for the care, confinement, and rehabilitation of approximately 54,700 inmates in its 54 state correctional facilities. If rehabilitation truly is the goal, a good first step would be to treat prisoner-workers as any other worker. When private prison corporations can shave the cost of $69,000 per inmate in their prisons, it's easy to see why they would be reluctant to give up those profits. Paying inmates a minimum wage is the last thing on their minds. Columnist, John Funiciello, is a former newspaper reporter and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Contact Mr. Funiciello and BC.




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