Tuesday Talk*: How Much Should Inmates Be Paid?

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.

30 thoughts on “Tuesday Talk*: How Much Should Inmates Be Paid?

      1. Chris

        At least to some extent – if my employer covered my room and board I’d have to pay income taxes on it as it would be considered income.

  1. Raccoon Strait

    Wouldn’t it be prudent to pay prisoners commensurate with what they pay for food, clothing, and rent? Then we could also dock their pay to cover fines and court costs they haven’t ponied up for yet. Oh, and lets not forget that debt they owe their lawyer (could they pay themselves if the went pro se? and what do you mean you get it all up front?). How about the wardens vacation fund?

    At the same time, withholding the hand sanitizer from them because it contains alcohol and they might get drunk is probably cruel and unusual (well, maybe not unusual). One might consider that the type of alcohol used in such preparations is most likely not the kind of alcohol one drinks, and would probably kill them if they drank it, rather than get them drunk. That might get some motivated, but the commercial prison system would not like it at all.

    1. Skink

      “Wouldn’t it be prudent to pay prisoners commensurate with what they pay for food, clothing, and rent?”

      It’s not too clear what you mean by “pay” for those things, but the current proposed budget for Swamp prisons divides down to about $74 per prisoner-day. So I guess they could be paid $25K per-year. Then the DOC could take it back through subsistence liens. What would be the purpose?

      As for what prisoners might do with the sanitizer, for those who haven’t spent considerable time in prisons and jails the list would seem astoundingly long.

      1. Sam

        “So I guess they could be paid $25K per-year. Then the DOC could take it back through subsistence liens. What would be the purpose?”

        If nothing else, paying prisoners minimum wage would help alleviate prison profiteers from using their prison monopoly to inflate prices on everything from phone calls to low quality items from the commissary (and increasingly banning free book programs so they can charge prisoners for reading), then paying a wage so low that the difference must be covered by innocent family members, many of whom are lower income women already struggling to get by on one income.

        I may be a wild eyed progressive on this one, but perhaps we can work to limit the financial hardship of incarceration to those imprisoned rather that treating it as an excuse to shake down their family members already struggling to survive on a reduced income.

        1. SHG Post author

          You’re right that both Skink and you introduce a secondary factor into the equation, and thereby avoid dealing with the hard problem. The question was what should they be paid, not what should commissary or telephone cost. But that’s a hard question and you’re “I may be a wild eyed progressive” does nothing to answer it.

          1. Sam

            The answer to your question was in the first sentence of my response to Skink.

            “If nothing else, paying prisoners minimum wage…..

            To clear up any confusion about my phrasing, minimum wage.

    2. PML

      First, the alcohol is the wrong type. They already have this hand sanitizer in the prisons in NY. It contained in wall mounted dispensers by the bathroom doors in most dorms.

      As to pay, CORCRAFT or industry jobs are the most request jobs inside. There are some that are currently paying close to $2 an hour. The question you have to ask is whats fair for the job, you cannot pay everyone the same. An inmate that works in industry is doing a heck of a lot more than the guy working as a REC aide or Gym porter.

      1. SHG Post author

        Many people fail to realize how much inmates want paying work, both to keep busy and make some commissary money. But you still didn’t answer the questions: how much and why?

        1. pnl

          How much is like anything else Job dependent. One of the Jobs in prison that you are paid for is going to school getting a GED. Your paid starting out at .27 per hour for 3 hrs per module. Its not a job is a job sense, but DOCCS is still paying you. They pay you to Cut grass, or work in the chow hall, there again is all Job dependent. I think as a base if the started at $1 per hour for Category 1 assignments and worked up from there to the top end of $3-4 you would make the inmates very happy. It would end a lot of issues because they would be able to afford a few more comfort items.

          For an inmate that has no outside support what they get currently does not go far, especially if they are a smoker.

          Why is a tough question, I guess its based on what you see as fair. The other issue is that DOCCS is always deducting something from what ever little you do get.

          1. SHG Post author

            So start at $1 and work up to $3-4 because that would make inmates very happy. See how easy that is without the surplusage?

  2. B. McLeod

    They shouldn’t force the inmates to work unless it was part of the sentence. That said, if the work is voluntary, normal principles of capitalism should apply (i.e. , whatever inmates are willing to work for).

    1. Aaron W

      The problem with this is that “normal principles of capitalism” don’t apply in prisons.

      I can’t go into a prison and offer a prisoner twice what they are making now to come work for me (which even at $1.24/hour would be a huge savings over what my firm currently pays its receptionist).

      Prisoners are literally a captive workforce allowed to work for only the people their captors say they can work for. In such a circumstance “normal principles of capitalism” have already gone out the window. (Even if we do assume that questions of force can be safely ignored.)

      1. B. McLeod

        So, they are an island economy (in some cases, quite literally), but within that context, capitalism can still operate, so long as they can choose whether to exchange their labor for the wages offered.

        1. Aaron W

          It’s an artificially isolated economy – isolated by the people who benefit from the reduced cost of their labor – and one which they are kept in against their will.

          A prison isn’t an island that people just happen to live on and that happens to be hard to reach and that people chose to stay on despite low wages. It’s a place where people are brought by force, kept against their will, and kept separate from the rest of the world by the very entities which benefit from the captive workforce.

          Plus of course, other aspects of a normal capitalist society are prevented from entering into the prison marketplace – in a capitalist society: the labor force can unionize for better wages, individual members of the labor force can start their own competing businesses, (island or not) competing businesses can come into the marketplace if they want, laborers are not forced to shop at the company store and purchase goods at artificially inflated prices, laborers are not forced to use only company provided services – subject to company monitoring – for their communication with the outside world, etc.

          Prisoners are trapped in an artificial economy controlled by the very people who then would purport to “hire” them – so long as prisons are prisons, and prisoners are there against their will subject to force by the guards (who also happen to function as formen at these jobs), with only those employers allowed in by the prison to hire them, nothing resembling “normal capitalism” can be said to exist.

  3. Turk

    The $3/hr wage gives them the dignity of doing work for some actual money, that might also be something to take with them when they leave prison and restart life.

    I suspect that those twin things might drop the recidivism rate a bit, which would be good for both lower incarceration rates and probably lower tax expenditures.

    (I have no idea if this was ever the subject of a study, but it should be.)

    Also, nice subject given the old prison labor gang in your masthead.

  4. Christopher Best

    Prisoners should be paid enough so that their labor can’t be used to provide unfair competition in the marketplace. Oh wait, except that’s exactly what the Governor wants to do here, doesn’t he.

    If price gouging is a pervasive enough problem, that sounds like an opportunity for an entrepreneurial spirited New Yorker to step up and undercut the bad actors.

    1. pml

      I don’t know where the 62 cents an hour comes from, but unless you have a CORCRAFT or Industry job the top pay for grade 4 in NY is 48 cents.

      1. SHG Post author

        The 62 (to 65, according to where you look) cents per hour comes from the LAS and activists, the ones most inclined to argue its inadequacy. Regardless, arguing whether it’s 62 or 48 cents is economic pedantry, about as pointless and distracting as possible. What purpose is served by being the asshole?

  5. PseudonymousKid

    The obvious solution is to force the prisoners to unionize and collectively bargain regarding wages and other terms using their prison lawyers as counsel. If the state wants them to work, they have to agree to the terms of that work or else they can just wait their time out inventing new and exciting uses for hand sanitizer. There’s absolutely no way such a system could be abused by anyone ever.

    Pay them the federal minimum wage. Why? Because even if the Constitution says enslaving prisoners is OK, it isn’t. If the government really wants to make slaves of prisoners, then it should say as much when it seeks its convictions and get Court approval for the same. It would be fascinating to see courts sentence individuals to slavery in 2020.

  6. Turnkey

    The island economy is half right.

    The missing part of the equation is what inmates must buy. In states which do not pay inmates, or they pay exceedingly low amounts, the inmates must be provided with everything: deodorant, shaving cream and razor, soap, toothbrush and toothpaste, etc.

    A better, albeit more complicated measure is what’s the inmate’s incarcerated life like? Do they have basic hygiene items, can they afford to buy a few snacks at the commissary, can they call home or write an email/letter regularly, and do they have access to a radio or TV they can control? These are simple luxuries in prison which go a long way.

    As a result, the answer is depends. The passionate who want inmates to be better paid have hitched their hopes and dreams to a goal which isn’t outcome oriented. Focus on tangible goals (like above) and fit the pay scheme to them.

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