Colorado Votes to Abolish Unpaid Prison Work, But Paltry Wages are Still the Norm Nationwide

This week Colorado voters passed Amendment A, a ballot initiative to remove language in its state constitution that previously allowed prison labor without pay. In what many have dubbed “modern slavery,” unpaid (or extremely meagerly paid) labor in U.S. prisons made international headlines in recent months as incarcerated Americans staged widespread labor strikes to call for an end to the injustice.

Prisoners and activists moved a step in the right direction with Colorado’s Amendment A—just two years after the same initiative failed to pass in the progressive state. Proponents recognized that the measure might have failed on the ballot in 2016 because it overly complicated the phrasing of the amendment proposal. In fact, nearly 300,000 voters skipped the question altogether. Supporters made sure to simplify the language this go-around.

With the passage of Amendment A, Colorado’s constitution will no longer hold the caveat that slavery is abolished “except as a punishment for a crime.” While this is undoubtedly a victory for prison reform activists, it’s more of a symbolic measure than one that will immediately reach the wallets of those incarcerated.

The state of prison labor in the U.S.

Incarcerated people in Colorado, and the United States at large, earn an average maximum daily wage of $3.45. And that’s before the prison deducts money from each paycheck, sometimes, as is the case in Massachusetts, as high as 50 percent. While these state-by-state deductions serve legitimate purposes—they may go toward discharge charges, savings accounts or court fees, for example—they continue to limit incarcerated people’s ability to purchase basic items like tampons or cell phone cards, each of which go for around $10, or two weeks’ pay.

Prison jobs are still entirely unpaid in five states, except for in rare exceptions—Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia and Texas—all of which dubiously rank in the top 10 in state imprisonment rates per 100,000 residents.

Paying prisoners nickels to the dollar (and that’s being generous) cannot positively contribute to attempted efforts to curb America’s alarming recidivism rates—an estimated 76.6 percent of people return to prison within five years of release. People with criminal justice histories are often cash-strapped upon re-entering society, because the months and years spent working in prison amounted to very little.

This low pay—combined with lack of access to rehabilitation, a desire for sentencing reform and what are often inhumane living conditions—recently created a tinderbox in prisons nationwide. The fuse was lit when seven prisoners were killed during a prison riot in April at the Lee Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison in South Carolina. The event inspired a 19-day, nationwide prison strike. Prisoners from 24 facilities stopped working, and in some cases stopped eating, to promote 10 national demands of men and women in prisons.

Where do incarcerated Americans work, and why?

This is not to say that many of the 900,000 working prisoners don’t value the opportunity to work while incarcerated. Some see it as an opportunity to keep busy in an otherwise bleak place, pick up a skill and, yes, make a buck or two along the way.

“My prison job made me feel like I was fulfilling my existential duty to society,” Chandra Bozelko, who served six years in a maximum-security women’s prison in Connecticut, wrote in the LA Times. “Work is more than a wage; it’s an expression of humanity, and that is especially true in prison.”

Prison jobs come in many forms; the majority of jobs are known as “facility” or plainly “prison” jobs. These include custodial, maintenance, food service or groundskeeping positions. A smaller percentage of prisoners are part of work release programs, work camps and community work centers—these jobs are typically set aside for people who are deemed “low risk.”

An even smaller number of people (5,300 of the 2.3 million incarcerated nationwide) work in the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIE Program). PIE is a Congress-created program that allows private-sector companies to employ prisoners in exchange for free or reduced rent and utilities. Well-known companies like Victoria’s Secret, Whole Foods, Nintendo and Eddie Bauer have famously (or infamously) been mainstays in the PIE Program.

The program has been somewhat of a mixed bag, drawing a fair share of both criticism and praise. Supporters argue that the program supports inmates and teaches them transferable job skills, while critics say companies are exploiting prisoners for low wages at their own financial gain. In 2015, Whole Foods was exposed for paying 85 cents a pound for tilapia farmed by prisoners and then turning around to sell it for $11.99 a pound.

Not all prison jobs, however, operate from behind the scenes. In California, half of all wildfire firefighters are incarcerated, yet they make $2 daily compared to the non-incarcerated firefighters’ $22 to $34 an hour. Likewise, in Boston, prisoners make less than $1 an hour to shovel snow alongside union workers making $30 an hour.

The bottom line

States spend an average of $33,274 per inmate, per year. Perhaps with a modest increase in pay rates, prisoners could contribute to the high operation costs that come with providing substantial meals, clean quarters and a safe environment.

But for now, Colorado activists are taking this victory in stride and celebrating the importance of passing Amendment A.

“This won’t have a direct impact on prison reform or how inmates are treated,” activist Kamau Allen told Fox News. “But it is definitely more impactful than removing something like a Confederate monument, because this will actually change the text of a living document.”

Image credit: Hédi Benyounes via Unsplash

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Grant Whittington

Based in Washington, DC, Grant works as a program assistant at SEEP Network, an international development nonprofit. A proud graduate of the University of Maryland, Grant spent four months post-grad living in Armenia where he worked for Habitat for Humanity and the World Food Programme. Grant is passionate about humanitarianism and finding sustainable approaches to international development. He enjoys playing trivia with friends but is still seeking his first victory - he ceaselessly blames his friends lack of preparation.