Vidal Guzman worked as a mason, a porter, and a food server during his four years of incarceration. At Riverview Correctional Facility, a New York state prison near the Canadian border, he earned 16 cents per hour working in the cafeteria; his paycheck was around $3.50 per week. When he went to the prison’s commissary for the first time, he remembered scrounging together money to buy one stamp and two packs of ramen noodles.
“It’s a very embarrassing moment when you’re looking at commissary and you’re dividing pennies to see how much you have,” Guzman told New York Focus.
As part of her executive budget, Governor Kathy Hochul included a proposal that takes aim at low prison wages—not by paying them more in their current jobs, where they’re employed by the state, but by passing a constitutional amendment to overturn New York’s century-old ban on private employment of incarcerated people.
Hochul argues that private employers would pay higher wages—the same wages that would be offered for comparable work outside prison—and offer more job training. The measure is part of a broad agenda she has proposed, dubbed “Jails to Jobs,” to reform the state’s reentry system and help people secure jobs and housing after they’re released from prison or jail.
Many advocates for incarcerated people—including Guzman, who since his release in 2014 has worked on a campaign to raise the minimum prison wage to $3 an hour—are skeptical. They acknowledge that private employers could pay higher wages, but they say lax oversight of parallel programs in other states has enabled illegal exploitation. They also object to Hochul’s proposal to allow the state to garnish up to 50 percent of incarcerated people’s wages under the program.
“This is just a way to gain money for private industries, at the exploitation of folks who’ve already been exploited over and over again within society,” said Anne Oredeko, supervising attorney of the Legal Aid Society’s racial justice unit.
One reform group, however, supports the proposal: New Yorkers United for Justice, a prominent criminal justice reform coalition, told New York Focus it’s working with the Hochul administration to assess potential private companies for the state to partner with.
“This particular program has had plenty of criticism over the years, some of it quite rightly. There have been bad actors in the past…But that’s not going to be the outcome in New York,” said Alexander Horwitz, the coalition’s executive director.
If New York joins, it would become the thirtieth state to enroll in the federally-run program, known as the Prison Industries Enhancement Certification Program, which enables private corporations to partner with correctional agencies for labor. Key details about how the program would function in New York—including how much money prisoners will earn, how they will be selected, and which corporations the state will partner with—are not yet publicly available. A spokesperson for the governor said they will be hashed out in negotiations with the state legislature before its April 1 deadline to adopt a budget.
A Federal Program…
The US Congress created the Prison Industries Enhancement Certification Program in 1979, permitting corporations that participated in the program to engage in the transfer of goods made by incarcerated people across state lines. In exchange, incarcerated people were to be paid the prevailing wage—at least the local minimum wage—and receive written assurance that all work would be voluntary.
Despite having to pay the prevailing wage, companies still stand to secure somewhat greater profits by employing prison labor, for example by not having to pay for benefits.
Today, the program is relatively small, employing 4,700 prisoners out of the more than one million people incarcerated in America’s prisons. Other states have partnered with companies such as Dickinson Frozen Foods to produce frozen potatoes, onions, and peppers; Kauffman Engineering to manufacture wire harnesses; and Tornado Safe to make storm shelters.
The Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), an agency within the U.S. Department of Justice, operates the program and markets it as beneficial for incarcerated people, private employers, and states. A 2003 BJA pamphlet advertised it as “a way to reduce the escalating cost of crime.”
States stand to generate significant revenue from the program, which allows for deductions as high as 80 percent of an incarcerated person’s wages for owed payments like taxes, family support, restitution for crime victims, and charges for room and board. In some places, a percentage of prisoners’ paychecks go into a savings account for them to access once they’re released. The deductions can add up. Since the start of the program, roughly 59 percent of wages have been deducted from incarcerated people’s pay.
The program operates with little independent oversight. The National Correctional Industries Association, which did not respond to requests for comment, is tasked with overseeing it—but its members include private corporations that stand to make a profit from incarcerated workers’ labor, including furniture manufacturer Dauphin, reflectives manufacturer Avery Dennison, and 3M, which markets its license plate production system to correctional industries. New York’s prison industry, Corcraft, has used materials from 3M and Avery Dennison to produce license plates.
…Brought to New York
Hochul’s draft bill stipulates that the state would be able to garnish up to half of wages prisoners earned working in the program.
Those deductions are for “taxes, family support, restitution for crime victims, and other lawful obligations,” the bill states. Avi Small, a Hochul spokesperson, told New York Focus that those other “lawful obligations” will include court costs, DNA database fees, and sex offender registry fees, among others. Notably, Small said New York is not planning to make any deductions for room and board.
Incarcerated workers in New York’s prisons are already assigned jobs making license plates, cooking food, overseeing the law library, and cleaning cell blocks, among other tasks. The state made headlines at the start of the pandemic for manufacturing hand sanitizer with prison laborers, who made 65 cents per hour and were prohibited from using the product themselves.
Many positions have little value as job-training opportunities. In New York, for example, prisoners fill over $30 million in license plate orders for the Department of Motor Vehicles— but those jobs don’t exist outside of prison and are therefore largely unmarketable after release.
Horwitz argued that the program is an opportunity to find employers that will provide functional job skills and commit to hiring formerly incarcerated people. He did not share names of corporations under consideration, but said that “a corporation has to have that perspective on formerly incarcerated people as being people who are full of potential, being people who are eminently teachable and trainable in new industries.”
But Bianca Tylek, executive director of prison reform advocacy group Worth Rises, says one reason she opposes the program is that she doubts the new jobs will offer benefits after release. “Who knows if any of these skills are transferable skills? Will there be open jobs in these fields when they come out? Will somebody with a prison record be allowed to apply for these jobs?” she asked.
Watchdogs have also raised concerns over whether the work will be truly voluntary. New York’s incarcerated workers face harsh punishments for not showing up to work. Jennifer Scaife, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, the state’s legally-designated independent prison monitor, said she’s received reports of incarcerated workers receiving disciplinary tickets for refusing to work—which can carry consequences including solitary confinement and reduced chances of winning parole.
The federal government requires all work under the program to be voluntary, but Scaife suspects that won’t be followed in practice.
Along with the Legal Aid Society, the New York Civil Liberties Union, Color of Change, and Citizen Action of New York have also come out against the plan, issuing a statement saying they “cannot let Governor Hochul take us back to the past.
As budget negotiations continue, State Senator Zellnor Myrie (D–Brooklyn) said he will be keeping a close eye on developments. “I’m always dubious of private sector forays into our correctional facilities, because their responsibility is not to the well being of the incarcerated,” said Myrie (D–Brooklyn), who is sponsoring bills to enact a $3 minimum wage and an end to forced labor in prisons.”
Because the plan requires a constitutional amendment, the state legislature would have to approve the plan in two consecutive years for it to appear on the ballots of voters, who would have the final say.
This article’s has been edited to clarify that only one criminal justice reform group has publicly supported Hochul’s proposal. A description of the Correctional Association of New York’s legal mandate to monitor prisons, and New Yorkers United for Justice’s name, have been corrected.