Campaign Launched to Raise Wages and Guarantee Prisoners’ Labor Rights | New York State
Activists launched a new campaign on Monday to raise wages for incarcerated New Yorkers and improve working conditions in the state’s prison system.
Organizations with the Fix The 13th NY campaign – referring to the desire to change the 13th Amendment – will work with lawmakers and legislative leaders in Albany this session to enact the minimum wage for incarcerated people in New York and amend the Constitution of the state to prohibit prisoners from being forced into involuntary labor, such as making license plates or the state-issued NY Clean hand sanitizer at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s not going to be easy,” said Lisa Zucker, senior legislative affairs attorney for the New York Civil Liberties Union. “But what structural change has ever been easy to make?”
The 13th Amendment states that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime of which the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist in the United States or any place subject to the jurisdiction thereof.” Proponents said the six words “except as a punishment for a crime” authorize the legalization of slavery of the incarcerated population and should be changed.
Congress ratified the amendment in 1865, triggering the mass incarceration of blacks after the Civil War. Several plantations were purchased and turned into prisons.
“They bought them and they found a way to continue slavery, to manufacture it and to justify it,” Zucker said.
Activists launched the campaign Monday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day to pass three bills in the 2022 legislative session to enact a minimum wage for incarcerated New Yorkers and bar prisoners from being forced to provide labor against their will by force, threats, or punishment, sponsored by Sen. Zellnor Myrie, D-Brooklyn.
The bills are gaining support from progressive downstate lawmakers, largely from New York and downstate areas.
The Fix The 13th NY campaign is led by attorney Vidal Guzman, a political entrepreneur at the Next100 think tank who helped launch the campaign to shut down Riker’s Island in New York City.
Guzman spent more than five years incarcerated in New York prisons, including Riker’s, and worked for 16 cents an hour behind bars.
“The remnants of slavery are visible in every facet of our criminal justice system,” Guzman said Monday. “In 2022, there is no excuse that real slavery – in the form of forced prison labor, at near-zero wages, in inhumane conditions – will be tolerated in the United States. New York should assert that such a practice is indefensible and not welcome in this state.
Incarcerated workers in the state earn a starting wage of 16 cents per hour, which can be increased to 65 cents per hour, according to the Prisoners’ Rights Project within the Legal Aid Society.
The lowest minimum wage for non-incarcerated workers in the state is $13.50 an hour, which increased by $1 on January 1.
Incarcerated workers last received a pay raise in 1993 under Governor Mario Cuomo.
Donna Hylton worked in customer service for multiple companies during her 27 years incarcerated at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, the state’s only maximum security prison for women.
“I made the most of this time to the best of my abilities,” said Hylton, founder of the A Little Piece of Light organization. “Like so many women at Bedford Hills Correctional Institution, I spent the majority of that time working. … I had no days off unless I was physically ill. Because of the 13th Amendment loophole, this is all legal. It is time to create fair working conditions and end forced labor in our prisons.
According to the DOCCS, incarcerated New Yorkers are not penalized in terms of compensation for calling for medical, dental or parole board appointments, legal or family visits and approved religious services.
Activists argued that those incarcerated should not be forced to work, but consulted on the skills they would like to learn and the industry in which to work.
Many of the state’s 30,488 incarcerated individuals generate more than $53 million in annual revenue through Corcraft – a division of the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, through forced labor without federal or state protections employment.
Incarcerated New Yorkers do not enjoy paid sick leave, mandatory overtime for non-salaried employees, Occupational Safety and Health Administration protections, or the right to unionize.
DOCCS representatives declined to comment on the pending legislation on Monday.
The number of New Yorkers incarcerated on the department’s payroll was not attainable on Monday, when offices were closed for a holiday, representatives said.
“However, DOCCS policies regarding work programs are guided by state law and expected practices of the American Correctional Association, as set forth in department guidelines,” according to the department Monday. “By law, DOCCS is required to follow OSHA regulations for all workers, including incarcerated individuals. OSHA officials are not required to obtain authorization prior to an inspection and may perform inspections without notice. »
Organizers of the Fix The 13th NY campaign have yet to discuss prison labor reforms with Gov. Hochul’s office, they said Monday.
But they are hopeful after the governor announced a new Jail to Jobs initiative in his state of the state address on Jan. 5 to create more opportunities for incarcerated people to access education programs. superior and reduce recidivism rates.
“Governor Hochul said there is no justice in a system that continues to unduly punish formerly incarcerated individuals who have served their time and paid their debts to society,” a spokesperson for the government said Monday. Hochul’s office.”The right education, opportunity, or college degree can uplift any New Yorker, which is why the governor wants to harness the power of education to help formerly incarcerated people reintegrate through a Jails-to-Jobs initiative, restoring the Tuition Assistance Program and enabling volunteer, private sector, prison job opportunities that pay a competitive salary. Governor Hochul is committed to ensuring that no population is at risk of falling through the cracks and these policies will ensure that the justice system will not stop someone from trying to improve their lives.
In her State of the State address, the Governor proposed a constitutional amendment to create hybrid work release programs in state prisons; to expand vocational and employment readiness and reintegration programs, to enable school release as an earned reintegration opportunity and program to provide workforce training to the 700 release officers state parole by 2023 to support employment opportunities for parolees and reduce recidivism rates.
Details will be released during the governor’s annual executive budget address on Tuesday afternoon.
Spokespeople for the Senate Democrats and House Democrats did not respond to questions at press time Monday about their conferences’ positions on state prison labor reform.