ALBANY - A Democratic proposal to increase the pay of New York's prison inmates to at least $3 per hour is prompting outrage from some Republican lawmakers.
Inmates in New York are among the nation's lowest paid, earning an average of 62 cents per hour, according to a study from the Prison Policy Institute. The proposed legislation would give the state six months to implement the higher minimum wage for the work inmates perform, including custodial and food services, and the manufacture of license plates, clothing and office supplies.
Sen. Zellnor Myrie, a Brooklyn Democrat and sponsor of the bill, stressed that incarcerated people deserve to be treated with dignity and paid a reasonable wage.
"The fact that New York's incarcerated people contribute tens of millions of dollars in revenue to the state and haven't gotten a pay increase in more than a quarter century is unacceptable, and this legislation will change that," Myrie said. "Justice for incarcerated people in New York is overdue."
The majority of inmates in state prisons work six hours per day, five days a week, according to Myrie's office. The last raise for people incarcerated in New York was 1993.
State Sen. George Amedore, a Rotterdam Republican, said the proposed increase is "outrageous" in light of the state's recently acknowledged $2.3 billion revenue shortfall for the upcoming fiscal year.
"At a time when everyday New Yorkers are struggling to make ends meet, when our direct care workers who provide care for the most vulnerable aren't making a living wage, and towns and villages throughout the state are having critical funding stripped, to say this idea is misguided in an understatement," Amedore said.
Sen. Daphne Jordan, R-Halfmoon, called the idea "ridiculous."
"Welcome to Albany's 'Bizzaro World,' where members of the Senate Democratic Majority are advocating a higher minimum wage for incarcerated criminals -- and expect law-abiding, hard-working taxpayers to foot the bill," Jordan said.
New York Civil Liberties Union's Erika Lorshbough said in a statement that fairer compensation is "a critical step toward realizing the promise of the 13th Amendment," which outlawed involuntary servitude except as punishment for a crime. If inmates refuse to participate in work programs, a memo in support of the proposed legislation suggests they could face discipline.
"No New Yorker should go without adequate compensation for their labor simply because they are involved in the criminal justice system," Lorshbough said.
Prisoners in 17 states participated in a three-week strike last year to protest their low wages, which they equated to slavery. Inmates in Nevada, Alaska, Maine and Kansas already earn at least $3 an hour, according to the legislative memo.
In New York prisons, inmates are required to pay for phone calls, stamps and items from the commissary.
The legislation was proposed in August for the first time in the Assembly, and was introduced in the state Senate on Monday. The legislative sponsors are also calling for a commission to conduct a study examining the cost as well as any benefits of increasing the minimum wage for inmates.