Here’s a Labor Day story that deals with a very different type of union — one that’s designed to work against its members rather than on their behalf.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo recently said he supported a proposal to hike the pay for inmates in the state’s prison system. A bill to establish a minimum wage of $3 per hour remains mired in both the state Assembly and Senate. Those incarcerated earn between 10 cents and $1.14 per hour.
“Inmates in New York are among the nation’s lowest paid, earning an average of 62 cents per hour, according to a study from the Prison Policy Institute,” according to a story published Feb. 8 in the Times Union in Albany. “The proposed legislation would give the state six months to implement the higher minimum wage for the work inmates perform including custodial and food services, and the manufacture of license plates, clothing and office supplies.”
State Assemblyman Mark Walczyk, R-Watertown, issued a statement Wednesday objecting to Cuomo’s comment. Of course, he wouldn’t be a Republican in good standing if he didn’t oppose something that could benefit prisoners.
“This is just another slap in the face to taxpayers across New York who are already facing stagnant wages and rising costs of living,” he said in his statement, according to Newzjunky. “Individuals who are incarcerated are in prison to pay a debt to society, not give them the chance to increase their personal budgets.”
The situation is not quite as simple as Walczyk presents it. The state benefits from work done by inmates. Their “personal budgets” are vital for them to acquire many of the things they need — and, by the way, to continue paying off the numerous fines they’ve been assessed by court and prison authorities.
Corcraft is a brand name of products made by inmates through the Division of Correctional Industries. The prison system makes good money off their labor.
These items include office furniture, steel barbecue grills, outdoor waste receptacles, lockers, school accessories, personal care products and tables. They can only be sold to state and municipal governmental entities and certain non-profit groups.
Corcraft products made by inmates at various prisons include metal products at Attica, laminate furniture and license plates at Auburn, textiles at Clinton, highway signage and mattresses at Eastern, personal care items and vehicle maintenance chemicals at Great Meadow, panel systems and ergonomic seating at Green Haven, and eyeglasses at Wallkill. In addition, prisoners staff tele-response centers for the state Department of Motor Vehicles at both Bedford Hills and Greene.
If there’s one thing that Americans have loved even before our nation’s founding, it’s slave labor (the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits slavery “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted” — so inmates are literally slaves). New York was a pioneer in devising a plan to sell goods produced by prisoners.
“New York’s Correctional Industries Program is the oldest in the United States, beginning in the early 19th century at Auburn Prison,” according to a June 6 directive by the state Department of Corrections and Supervision. “The Division of Industries was organized in 1893 pursuant to Section 184 of Correction Law, which authorized the department to manufacture articles and goods utilizing inmate labor.”
People knowledgeable of how the state’s prison system operates have told me that inmates are frequently at a disadvantage financially while serving their time. When they first get to prison, they earn 10 cents per hour.
Then they gradually inch their way toward slightly higher wages. While they may actually work more hours, they’re not paid for any time exceeding six hours a day, seven days a week. A prisoner earning the average of 62 cents per hour would be paid $3.72 per day, which totals $26.04 per week.
Inmates receive three meals a day and are issued a bar of soap, toothpaste and a toothbrush. That’s pretty much it. Just about everything else costs them currency.
Compounding the dilemma for prisoners is the fact that money is constantly deducted from their accounts if they owe fines. The prison system takes 40 percent of anything they earn inside the facility and 50 percent of any money given to them from outside.
Many violations inside a prison cost inmates $5 each. The incessant need for cash puts a tremendous strain on the families attempting to support loved ones who are incarcerated.
There are charges for using the phone network inside each facility. A 30-minute call will cost about $1.30.
A company called JPay operates a system for sending money to prisoners — at a fee for each transaction. One exception is that checks may be sent to JPay lockboxes for prisoners with no charges.
Last year, JPay made electronic devices available to inmates. Some functions come with no fees, but others (such as sending emails and downloading music) impose charges. Introducing a new “toy” like this increases the potential of violence between prisoners and leads them to demand even more money from people on the outside.
According to an Aug. 3, 2018, story published by Wired, companies like JPay are making a tidy profit from inmates across the country. They hold a monopoly in each facility, and prisoners often have no choice but to use their services.
In 2011, JPay reported revenue of $30.4 million, Wired’s article said. By 2014, this rose to $70.4 million.
This is a shameful state of affairs. New York’s prison system should not exist so that it and private companies can make money off the misery of convicts. If they are going to continue this process of exploitation, these inmates at the very least deserve a raise.
Who cares if prisoners get a raw deal? We all should.
The purpose of incarceration is to motivate criminals to become more productive citizens when they leave prison.
Why strive for this goal if they believe that all they got out of the experience is being robbed of their labor and meager income? And how do we enhance public safety if former inmates carry this chip on their shoulders?
Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org.