Mario’s smarter son came up with a solution for the dearth of hand sanitizer in New York:
The governor showed off gallons of the liquid — grandly unveiled from behind a thick curtain — at his now-daily coronavirus briefing and presented it as a novel solution to price-gouging of name-brand sanitizer. And he seemed genuinely taken with the product, saying the state would be capable of making 100,000 gallons per week and warning online retailers again that they should stop overcharging.
No doubt Governor Andy Cuomo thought this fix would receive plaudits, simultaneously put an end to price-gouging, a time-honored New York tradition, create an abundance of much-needed hand sanitizer, and do so by putting to use inmates in New York State prisons, who are paid an average of about 62 cents per hour for their labors and given something to do to pass the time. Andy was mistaken.
Some progressive lawmakers said they were leery of relying on prison labor. “I’m concerned that we are asking the incarcerated to save the public from a health crisis, but won’t give them the dignity of a fair wage,” said State Senator Zellnor Myrie, a first-term Democrat from Brooklyn, who introduced a bill last year to guarantee prisoners a minimum wage $3 an hour.
There are other issues bound up here, such as the fact that the inmates themselves won’t be allowed hand sanitizer because it’s primarily alcohol and, denials notwithstanding, will likely end up being used for unintended purposes by many.
In a statement, the Legal Aid Society also noted that inmates themselves might not be able to use the hand sanitizer because it could be considered contraband as a result of its alcohol content. “These individuals work for less than a dollar a day under threat of punishment — including solitary confinement — if they refuse,” the society said. “This is nothing less than slave labor.”
The “dollar a day” alliteration sounds horrible, but isn’t exactly true. Nonetheless, the question raised is what should prisoners be paid for their labors? The 13th Amendment makes clear that involuntary servitude, “slavery,” is prohibited except in prison.
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
But then, inmates are sentenced to prison, not hard labor. While engaging in work for Corcraft, the name given New York’s prison industry, is supposed to be voluntary, it’s contended that the flipside is being punished for refusal, including a trip to SHU upon refusal. This, however, is a separate issue.
Should prisoners be paid for their labor? If so, how much? Do prisoners deserve the same minimum wage as anyone else, since they’re people too and as deserving of being paid a “living wage” as anyone else, or should they be paid some lesser amount?
In the ordinary scheme of determining the proper amount of wages, the question would be what wages are necessary to provide an adequate number of competent workers to perform the task. Basic compensation theory doesn’t apply well to prisoners, of course, because they are the literal “captive audience.”
This raises two questions. The first is relatively easy, how much should inmates be paid for their labor? The second question, however, is far harder: Why?
*Tuesday Talk rules apply.