Senate Bill S3138, also known as The Prison Minimum Wage Act, is currently being debated on the floor of the New York State Senate. If passed, the bill would require that all inmates receive a minimum wage of $3 an hour for their labor.
The bill was first introduced by State Sen. Zellnor Myrie and Assemblyman Nick Perry, both Democrats, in February 2019. It has 14 co-sponsors in the state senate, all of whom are Democrats. Though stalled last year, the bill arrived on the senate floor this month before the Crime Victims, Crime and Correction Committee during a key moment for prison advocacy during the pandemic.
By instituting a minimum wage of at least $3 an hour for inmates, the bill aims to end “the last vestiges of slavery,” said Myrie, in an August 2019 op-ed. “To reject this premise,” he wrote, “is to accept that some in our society should provide mandatory free-to-low cost labor for everyone else’s benefit, a concept this country rejected after much bloodshed and political compromise.”
Since March, New York State has been manufacturing free hand sanitizer for communities hit hardest by the virus, as well as state offices and schools. The hand sanitizer, labeled NYS Clean, is produced by Corcraft, a section of New York’s prison system that uses inmate labor to manufacture products sold primarily to local government agencies. Corcraft is located in 13 federal prisons across New York, according to its website, and generates tens of millions in dollars in sales. Inmates who manufacture Corcraft items —including hand-sanitizer— earn a starting wage of 16 cents an hour, and a maximum of 65 cents an hour, according to the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Service. To date, the inmates have produced 100,000 gallons of hand sanitizer per week, according to Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Many activists and politicians have been quick to point out the hypocrisy, as they see it, of paying prisoners so little to manufacture hand sanitizer, an item that inmates themselves cannot access. There are currently 92,000 people behind bars in New York, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a research and advocacy group. And medical professionals have shared their concerns about safety hazards in jails. In a March virtual press conference, correctional medical experts Brie Williams and Jonathan Giftos emphasized just how vulnerable inmates were to the virus given the scarcity of soap and masks in prisons and jails, as well as the unfeasibility of social distancing and frequent handwashing in those facilities.
“We are asking the incarcerated to save New Yorkers, but we aren’t giving them the resources to save themselves,” said Myrie. “This effort to increase their wages is something that’s not only timely, but truthfully, it’s the least we can do, given all they have already done for us.”
Erika Lorshbough, deputy policy director at the New York Civil Liberties Union, agreed. “Fairer compensation acknowledges the dignity and value of the work of incarcerated people, and is a critical step toward realizing the promise of the 13th Amendment,” she said. “No New Yorker should go without adequate compensation for their labor.”
Perry noted that New York “generates upwards of $50 million,” in prison labor, and condemned the “continuous violation of the human rights” of the incarcerated, he said, in a February 2019 press release.
The Prison Minimum Wage Act initially received support from Governor Cuomo, but has languished for over a year-and-a-half in the face of significant pushback from some Republican senators.
“The Senate Democratic Majority is apparently more concerned about coddling convicts than protecting law-abiding, hard-working taxpayers,” said Republican state senator Daphne Jordan. “The Senate Democratic Majority aren’t just robbing ‘Peter to pay Paul.’ They’re having the real pros—convicted, incarcerated felons— do it.”
Republican state senator George Amedore agreed, calling the bill’s proposals outrageous. “At a time when everyday New Yorkers are struggling to make ends meet… to say this idea is misguided is an understatement,” said Amedore.
But Myrie disagrees. “This is an argument wholly without merit,” he said. “If you are providing labor for a company that makes $50 million a year, and are not being compensated appropriately, then that’s slavery by another name. There’s no way around that.”
The last wage increase in New York prisons was in 1993, when then-governor Mario Cuomo instituted a minimum wage of ten cents an hour for inmates. But the costs of phone calls, stamps and items from the commissary, such as food, clothes, and personal health and hygiene articles— all goods and services inmates pay for—have continued to rise throughout the years, according to data released by the Department of Justice and the Bureau of Prisons.
Meanwhile, New York’s state senate schedule remains unclear due to the coronavirus, and Myrie is unsure of when the bill will be voted on. The earliest would be after the November election, he said, but the vote could be delayed as late as June 2021. Because of a Democratic majority in the New York Senate, Myrie added, the bill could theoretically pass without a single Republican vote in its favor.
(Photo by Michael Groll for City & State New York)