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Why Prisoners in New York Make Just 65 Cents Per Hour

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Dan Clark: One thing we're not expecting as part of the state budget this year is higher worker wages for people in prison who say their current pay is not enough. That's prompted a bigger question about what they do and why. Alexis Young has that story.

Alexis Young: During the thick of the pandemic local governments in New York State were struggling to get their hands on hand sanitizer. In March 2020, regular bottles of Purell hand sanitizer had skyrocketed on Amazon and eBay, and after requesting an end to what then Governor Cuomo called price gouging, he found a $6.10 cent per gallon solution, prison labor.

The 56th governor of New York State, had incarcerated individuals produce New York State clean hand sanitizer, 11 million bottles of it, leaving an excess of 700,000 gallons.

Incarcerated individuals make an hourly wage between ten and $0.65 in New York prisons. Some activists and legislators refer to the system as forced prison labor or slave labor.

Zellnor Myrie: If you spoke to any everyday New Yorker and you ask them whether slavery still exists today, they would say, of course not… of course not. 

We are hundreds of years past the end of slavery, but we today in this New York Constitution still have slavery embedded in our laws.

AY: Not all New York lawmakers agree. Ranker for the Crime Victims, Crime and Correction Senate Committee Senator Patrick Gallivan from the 60th District near Rochester opposes the bill and doesn't recognize prison labor as forced or slave labor.

Patrick Gallivan: I don't agree with the premise that it's, quote, slave labor, quote unquote. I think it's part of a program while they are in prison. It’s part of a rehabilitative process, and as it relates to actually spending time on a work assignment, it's doing something constructive.

AY: According to the Department of Correctional and Community Services (DoCCS), correction law states that incarcerated individuals be enrolled in treatment programs and work assignments. That work makes incarcerated individuals, employees at Corcraft, a company described as the brand name for the Division of Correctional Industries within DoCCS. 

Corcraft is a New York state preferred source, meaning the company contracts with local governments to provide things like office supplies, road signs, call center services and more. According to the Corcraft website, the goal is to employ incarcerated individuals to produce goods while preparing them for release by teaching them work skills, work ethic and responsibility. 

The bill text for the Prison Minimum Wage Act says those contracts are a monopoly in the municipal institution market and goes on to address a connection between slavery and prison labor law. In the Assembly, the Prison Minimum Wage Act is sponsored by Member Harvey Epstein of District 74.

Harvey Epstein: We see this throughout New York. You see it when you walk the halls and the desks we sit at, in the chairs we sit in, and the hand sanitizer we're using. Our government is abusing New Yorkers, allowing slave labor and involuntary servitude for incarcerated people.

AY: Slavery was abolished with the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and constitutionally by the 13th Amendment in 1865, but there's a caveat. Section one of the 13th Amendment states “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime of the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States or any place subject to the jurisdiction.” Bill sponsors say that exception means New York is continuing to profit unfairly from the work of incarcerated individuals.

Latif Shamsuddin has spent his days inside Green Correctional Facility since 2017. Between his two jobs as a porter or custodian in the dorms and an IPA or teacher's assistant, he says he earns around $3 every two weeks.

Latif Shamsuddin: Just $3 every commissary and is supposed to be one of the top paying jobs because you're working with civilians hand in hand. I'm not seeing any of that. It can be docked for gate money, if you have child support that taps into that as well. So basically it leaves you with nothing, and that's the situation.

AY: Shamsuddin says wages can also be docked for restitution and fines like damaging state property fees. 

Rosemary Rivera, the co-executive director of Citizen Action of New York and the Public Policy and Education Fund, was incarcerated in the eighties. During her time inside, she caught a charge for damaging state property, her skin. 

Rosemary Rivera: One of the fundamental principles of slavery is the belief that the person enslaved is not a person, but the property of the slave master.

It is ingrained in my brain that I could be written up or end up in solitary confinement because I got a sunburn. I'm a real light-skinned Puerto Rican. You sit me in that yard for a while, I'm going to get some sun.

The charge that I got was damaging state property. 

AY: There are additional bills that attempt to improve the quality of life for folks living inside prisons. The bill that would create a prison labor board was introduced by Senator Myrie last session.

S416.A would create and monitor equitable working environments for incarcerated individuals. Senator Gallivan said the bill…

PG: Implies that conditions are inhumane, and the working conditions are poor. It shouldn't be the case if that is true, and I think we do have an obligation to ensure that there are humane conditions. There's a commission of correction who has oversight responsibility of all correctional facilities.

AY: On the Prison Minimum Wage Act, the Senator said if wages are raised for incarcerated individuals, it should relieve New York State taxpayers of certain costs.

PG: Prison, especially for New York State, should include a rehabilitation process, but taxpayers are paying for room, they're paying for board, they're paying for medical services, vocational services, educational services, very programmatic issues like anger management.

AY: Assemblymember Phil Palmesano serves the 132nd Assembly District. The assemblyman agrees with Senator Gallivan. He maintains that prison labor is not slave labor and any increase in wages should be awarded to correctional officers, not incarcerated individuals.

Phil Palmesano: Frankly, I think if we did ask the taxpayers for anything more, we should be looking at increasing wages for our corrections officers. I mean, the fact of the matter is the wages in our correctional facilities, it’s not about the wages, it’s about preparing them for employment. I mean, it's well documented, there’s a clear correlation.

AY: The bill would also cost the state money. Though supporters didn't say how much when asked, a cost estimate is not included as part of the bill. Some of Assembly member Palmesano’s colleagues across the aisle feel differently.

The bill that would enact the Prison Minimum Wage Act is currently in committee where it has died in previous years.

In the New York State Capitol for New York Now. Alexis Young.

DC: The State Department of Correction, which oversees state prisons, declined to comment on that bill. 

Dan Clark: We have an update on Good Cause Eviction. It's a bill that would set limits for landlords on when they could evict someone and how much rent can go up. Supporters want to see it passed as part of the budget, saying it would help tenants at a time when the economy's future is unclear, but Assembly housing chair Linda Rosenthal said this week that other issues have come first in the budget.

Linda Rosenthal: Things are not advancing forward as long as some other discussions have not come to a conclusion.

DC: We don't even really know if it's being seriously discussed at this point, but landlords have been the main opponents of the bill. They don't like any of it. Opponents also say it could hinder housing growth in New York, which is a big issue right now in the state budget. 

Governor Hochul wants to build 800,000 new housing units over the next decade, and opponents say good cause could get in the way.

Tim Foley is CEO of the Building and Realty Institute of Westchester.

Tim Foley: Because good cause eviction applies to everything, it applies to market rate, it applies to duplexes that you might build if you're not going to live in them yourselves. Soup to nuts, we think a lot of developers would be very cautious about getting in there and they might have some trouble securing the financing that we need to get anything built here in New York because it’s so expensive.

DC: We'll keep an eye on that over the next few weeks. 

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Why Prisoners in New York Make Just 65 Cents Per Hour

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Proposed legislation aims to increase wages for incarcerated workers.