Increasing Prison Wages to Dollars Just Makes Sense

Since the early 80s, New York State prison wages have remained the same, despite the ever-increasing prices of food, postage, products, and other needed items. Why is this so?
Feb 07, 2023

During the past 22 years of my incarceration, I’ve witnessed many changes in the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (NYS DOCCS). Some—like providing incarcerated individuals with tablets—have been enhancements that maintain family ties and strengthen relationships. Others—like the addition of “quick chill” food products in plastic tubes—have not been much of an improvement. Yet, there remain areas that are stagnant and counterproductive to rehabilitation. I can't help but question, why has there been no increase of wages for incarcerated people?

Since the early 1980s, NYS DOCCS prison wages have remained the same, despite the ever-increasing prices of food, postage, products, and other needed items. Why is this so? When I came to prison in August of 2000, the minimum wage in Erie County was $5.15. Currently, the minimum wage is $13.20. The current wage scale for people incarcerated here, however, ranges from $0.10 an hour to $0.65 an hour and is determined by your program or assignment. The majority of the prison population earns $0.25 per hour or less.

In my current program assignment, I earn $0.25 an hour. My duties consist of keeping up the facility lawns and grounds all year round. I pick up garbage, mow, weed whack, trim hedges, shovel snow, and salt. Not only is this work labor-intensive, it also often requires having to work in harsh weather conditions including humidity, the hot sun, rain, snow, and frigid temperatures. We must awaken at 4:30 a.m., even during the winter months. Yet, my weekly income is $10.33.

In a 2020 court case, New York v. Sean McTerrell, a Kings County Supreme Court Judge stated, "The court then suggests that the Legislature may wish to consider paying inmates a wage less consistent with that paid by plantation owners to their slaves.”

When we look at the landscape of society, it provides a lens that can reveal what our "correctional” facilities need to be productive and, most importantly, to see those incarcerated become rehabilitated. Prisons and correctional facilities are sub-societies with an economy and a form of government. In our society, the lower-income, more impoverished areas are more susceptible to higher crime, lack of education, and more violence. Most incarcerated individuals come from lower-income neighborhoods. This means they are entering correctional facilities with many of the issues they had previously faced, like some form of addiction, mental health issues, or violence.

Nelson Mandela once said, "It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens but its lowest."

Providing a stable environment is an important component for an incarcerated person’s rehabilitation. A person working to better themselves becomes even more difficult in a deprived environment, where they may sometimes experience challenges, including hunger. A person experiencing deprivation will be less motivated and will have a negative attitude when expected to attend a therapeutic program or when interacting with others. This potentially creates a tense and hostile environment for everyone.

To aid a person in becoming better, the bare necessities should be provided to incarcerated people—including a decent wage that allows a person to meet their own basic needs. Denying a person a reasonable wage is, in essence, refusing to see their worth and value. For incarcerated people who are struggling to overcome many challenges, even those self-imposed, any positive affirmation is motivational and a step in the right direction. Increasing wages for incarcerated people will undoubtedly have an immediate and positive impact. Not only would it be beneficial to the overall economy, as the purchasing of items through the facility commissary supports the vendors and other companies, both small and large, but also the morale of the incarcerated population will get a boost, which is greatly needed and overdue. It will also motivate people to attend and participate in therapeutic and other needed or meaningful programs. For many, it will provide a sense of responsibility and independence by alleviating such a heavy reliance on family support. Along with this newfound independence and responsibility comes a renewed sense of self-worth. This builds confidence and the belief in oneself. Being able to learn financial responsibility, even on a prison wage, is monumental for many people who do not have this skill. For most, practical learning is best, rather than a theoretical approach. All these attributes are key components for a successful reintegration back into society, where the vast majority of incarcerated people will eventually end up.

A good indicator of what a person will do when they are released can be seen by what they are doing, or aren't doing, while incarcerated. If people are not learning fiscal responsibility, establishing independence, or finding their self-worth, how can they be expected to live well when released? Seeing incarcerated people as assets, instead of liabilities, will reverberate through correctional facilities across our nation. It demonstrates the belief in rehabilitation and a shared desire for people to return home better than when they left. Increasing the pay for incarcerated people to dollars just makes sense!

Walter Ball is an advocate for prison reform, co-founder of Change Comes from Within—Use Us, and a youth mentor and minister. He can be reached on JPay at Walter Ball, 01b1412, NYS DOCCS Inmate Services.

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