Lawyers want prison labor to be voluntary


Prisoners making license plates are a popular stereotype, but most of the country’s 800,000 incarcerated workers have jobs closer to those on the outside: cooking and serving food, cleaning floors, mowing grass and the hair.

However, unlike other workers, incarcerated people have little or no say in the jobs they do. They risk penalties if they refuse to work and are paid pennies an hour, if at all.

The country’s racial reckoning in recent years has prompted a reassessment of prison labor as a legacy of slavery, leading people to question whether those incarcerated should be forced to work by 2022. Activists are pushing for work requirements end or, if they continue, for wages to be increased.

Proponents of all-volunteer prison labor include the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Global Human Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School (UChicago). These groups released a report in June calling, among other recommendations, for the removal of any law or policy that punishes incarcerated people who do not want to work.

Other groups and legislators insist that it is appropriate to require inmates to work to maintain prison facilities.

“We still have to keep our prisons running,” California State Senator Steve Glazer, a Democrat, said in an interview. “We need hygiene, kitchen and grounds maintenance services to keep our prisons functioning. These are all appropriate work items to be in prison.

Glazer is in favor of different legislative solutions for inequities in the criminal justice system. The California Senate recently asked the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) for a plan to increase inmate pay.

“That’s exactly the way we should be approaching this issue,” Glazer said.

Other states are also considering whether and how to improve work and pay in prisons.

In March, Colorado enacted a law that will pay the state minimum wage of $12.56 an hour to inmates who are within a year of their release and who work for private companies under the program. Take TWO (Transitional Work Opportunity) from the state.

“It’s actually a very conservative approach,” Colorado State Rep. Matt Soper, the Republican sponsor of the bipartisan measure, said in an interview. “We need workers and they need to learn skills before they are released.”

However, to pass the bill, Soper first had to explain why paying prisoners minimum wage was a good idea.

“Some victims and victim advocacy groups initially opposed the idea and then wanted every dollar back in the form of restitution,” he said. “But it’s not a good system, because we want [los exdelincuentes] have savings as start-up capital to restart their lives. My goal is to disrupt the current pattern of recidivism.

But no Colorado prisoners are currently participating. Take TWO, which started in 2019 and reportedly had around 100 attendees in March, is “on hiatus as we review and update logistics and criteria and fill in some of our immediate staffing gaps,” the official said. CDCR in an email.

Prison minimum wage bills are pending in New York and Illinois. Since 2019, bills have failed in Arizona, Maryland, Mississippi, Nevada, Texas and Virginia, according to the ACLU.

Ex-convict Samual Nathaniel Brown seeks more radical change. When COVID-19 hit, Brown had served more than 20 years of a life sentence in California state prisons for attempted murder and had a parole hearing just around the corner.

As a janitor at a Los Angeles County correctional health facility known as Lancaster, he was ordered to clean rooms containing blood, feces, and other bodily fluids from floors and walls.

“I was terrified for my life. I didn’t want to die so close to home,” Brown, who has asthma and suffered a collapsed lung, said in an interview.

They told him that if he didn’t work, he would receive a 115 disciplinary report, which Brown calls “the modern equivalent of a whipping in the back.” A 115 is a serious violation of prison rules and can result in the loss of “good time” credits for good behavior, thus delaying an inmate’s release date. Brown went to work despite, in his words, a lack of social distancing and inadequate personal protective equipment.

Then, encouraged by his wife, he wrote her a proposed amendment to the state constitution that outlawed involuntary servitude. Brown earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from California State University, Los Angeles (Cal State LA) while in prison. He was granted parole last December.

Brown’s amendment, introduced by California State Senator Sydney Kamlager, failed the legislature in June after the state Department of Finance estimated it would cost $1.5 billion in 2022 to pay workers the $15 minimum wage.

A similar initiative in Illinois has also stalled.

“Yeah, it’s expensive,” Illinois State Senator Robert Peters, a Democrat who has twice introduced a minimum-wage prison bill in his state, told Stateline. “But we always find the money to build other things. Why can’t we find the money for this? the challenge is [el siguiente]: Why are so many people in prison doing work that cannot be paid?

Illinois state prisoners received a pay raise last year, the first in 11 years. It was about 14 cents a day, on wages ranging from 85 cents to $2.50 a day. Peters wants the state to pay prisoners the state minimum wage of $12 an hour.

“There is a disproportionate impact on African Americans and Hispanics. It touches on class, race and gender,” he said.

A study last year by The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization that works on criminal justice issues, found that African Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at nearly five times the rate of Whites and Hispanics 1.3 times more.

But even though Illinois has a Democratic governor and Democrats control both houses of the legislature, Peters’ bill, the End Prison Slavery Act, went nowhere.

“It’s very complicated,” Peters said. “We have lawmakers who want to do it, but they think the electorate is against it.”

Three Republican Illinois state lawmakers often embroiled in criminal justice issues did not respond to requests for comment on the prison minimum wage bill.

Peters argues that incarcerated workers deserve enough pay to buy necessities from the prison commissioner, the only market they have access to. He is also looking for ways to reduce the prices of the commissariat.

Proponents of making prison work more remunerative and meaningful also argue that it is unproductive for society to keep incarcerated workers in dead-end jobs that do not prepare them for employment outside prison walls. prison or do not allow you to accumulate savings for their release. Studies show that poverty and unemployment lead to recidivism.

Some crime victims groups also support higher prison wages, said Lenore Anderson, founder and president of the Alliance for Security and Justice (ASJ), a group based in Oakland, Calif., which works to end mass incarceration, reduce crime and support survivors of violent crime.

The public assumes that those harmed by crime and violence would want the worst prison experience possible for those who committed the crimes, Anderson said.

“But that’s not what we found. People want them to move on,” he said. to live in society? That’s what rehabilitation, work and education programs do. Salaries are part of it. It would be very consistent with intelligent rehabilitation to align inmate salaries with prison salaries. foreign.

The nationwide average wage for incarcerated workers who maintain correctional facilities ranges from 13 cents to 52 cents an hour, according to the ACLU and the Global Human Rights Clinic. In seven southern states — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas — nearly all prison labor is unpaid.

“It’s not hard to imagine that this is a remnant of slavery,” said Jennifer Turner, senior human rights researcher at the ACLU and lead author of the Captive report. Labor: Exploitation of Incarcerated Workers.

A survey of inmates conducted by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), cited in Captive Labor, found that 80% of state and federal prison employees work in prison maintenance jobs. Only 6.5% work in “corrections industries,” state programs that provide goods to state and local agencies, and less than 1% in private enterprise labor programs.

Cheap prison labor is profitable for states. The value of goods and services produced by correctional industries programs totaled $2 billion in 2021, according to the Captive Labor report, which cites the National Correctional Industries Association (NCIA). The value of the labor required to maintain the prisons is unknown, although in 2004 it was estimated at $9 billion, according to the report.

New York State Democratic Senator Zellnor Myrie introduced a bill last year that would raise prisoner wages to $3 an hour.

“During the depths of the pandemic, incarcerated New Yorkers, earning 16 cents an hour, produced 11 million bottles of hand sanitizer for the rest of us as COVID raged inside our jails and jails, killing dozens and sickening thousands,” Myrie said in an email. “We shouldn’t need a once-in-a-century virus to wake us up to the moral indignity of paying slave wages to those doing essential work.”

However, Myrie’s payroll has been overshadowed by other legislative efforts to change New York’s criminal justice system.

Prison change advocates rallied against a proposal put forward by Democratic New York Governor Kathy Hochul in February to reintroduce contract labor in New York state prisons, after he been banned for 100 years. Hochul’s proposal went nowhere, leaving the employment status of state inmates unchanged.

Worth Rises, a New York-based group that works to end the exploitation of incarcerated people and their loved ones, has also found more enthusiasm in pressing the United States Congress to repeal the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. American. slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime, and for telephone calls to those incarcerated in state prisons to be free.

“We had to go with what resonated with the public, and that wasn’t minimum wage” for incarcerated workers, said Bianca Tylek, founder and CEO of Worth Rises.

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