Editorial: No higher wages for inmates

Daily Gazette Editorial Board

February 08, 2019

Originally published in Daily Gazette on February 08, 2019.

New York taxpayers already pay enough to house criminals. They can't afford to give them a pay raise.

How much should prisoners be paid for the work they do while in prison?

If you answered something like: “INMATES GET PAID TO WORK IN PRISON?!!!!!,” you’re probably not alone.

So then you probably wouldn’t agree with a ridiculous piece of legislation actually being proposed in Albany called the Inmate Minimum Wage Act.

The bill (A1275/S3138) would require the state to pay the approximately 2,100 inmate workers in 14 state correctional facilities a minimum wage of $3 an hour for their work in prison food services, cleaning and making products like license plates (that’s a real thing), janitorial supplies and office furniture for government buildings.

The bill’s sponsors say the legislation is designed to “end the last vestiges of slavery.”

What it really ends is the last vestiges of fiscal sanity.

We support prisoners being held in safe and clean conditions. We’re in favor of laws that protect them from the harmful psychological effects of solitary confinement. Prisoners shouldn’t be subject to beatings and rapes. And they should have access to legal resources and educational materials so they can prepare to return to society.

But paying inmates a minimum wage to work inside the prison? 

Taxpayers are already paying an average of $69,300 to incarcerate each of New York’s 51,000-plus convicted criminals.

Now some legislators want to add hundreds of thousands of dollars more to that cost by bumping up their wages for work?

Work gives inmates purpose. It keeps them out of trouble. It gives them a skill they might be able to use outside prison. 

To call this work “slave labor” is an abuse of the term “slavery.” These people aren’t enslaved. They’re in prison because they committed crimes against society and therefore deliberately forfeited their freedom.

If you extend the logic of this legislation, then the state should be charging inmates for food, lodging and medical care.

One issue raised in the legislation is the $48 million in annual revenue generated by Corcraft, the state-funded entity in the prison system that hires inmates at very low wages to make products, which are then sold to local governments and schools.

Sales revenue goes into the state’s general fund and is used to cover operating expenses. If state lawmakers have an issue with the Corcraft arrangement, they can make a law to change it.

State Sen. Daphne Jordan hit the nail on the head when she said that law-abiding workers shouldn’t be supporting the wages of criminal workers. That’s what this bill does. “Welcome to Albany’s Bizzaro World,” she wrote.

Lawmakers shouldn’t be fooled into believing this is some kind of civil rights legislation.

What it really is is just another unnecessary waste of taxpayer money.