Prison Workers on Life Behind Bars

Green Haven Correctional Facility prison in Stormville, New York

Green Haven Correctional Facility prison in Stormville, New York, 19 August 2023
Photo: Alamy Stock Photo

Forced labor under the threat of punishment. Hourly wages under a dollar an hour. Having to choose between purchasing food or personal items. These are the conditions facing incarcerated New Yorkers that advocates say are why the state should amend its constitution to bar involuntary labor.

The Legal Aid Society collected approximately 400 letters from prisoners across the state as part of its campaign with 13th Forward, a statewide coalition advocating for the passage of the No Slavery in New York Act. Many of the incarcerated workers are employed by Corcraft, the industry program within the state department of corrections that produces goods sold throughout the state. Wages for incarcerated workers range from ten cents to 65 cents and haven’t been raised in more than 30 years. The letter writers are only being identified by their initials in order to protect them from potential retaliation.

In one letter, V.M., who works making chairs for 35 cents per hour, wrote, “I have been threatened by correctional officers if I didn’t want to work. Even now I was forced to work in the Corcraft Industries by the program committee or be disciplined with loss of all privileges.”

In another, B.N. wrote that she sometimes goes to work when she feels ill due to a lack of sick days and that she feels “inadequate” as a mother and grandmother because her low wages don’t allow her to purchase items for her family or herself. “I am forced to have to ask my son for a pair of decent sneakers or go without groceries to save up for them,” she wrote.

J.P., who works as an infirmary porter, wrote that they make about $9 every two weeks, a sum that doesn’t keep up with the growing prices of food and personal items at the prison commissary. “To put this in perspective, peanut butter costs $2.40, toothpaste is $1.27, soap is near $1.00, deodorant is over $2.00,” they wrote. “They slave us and then make it nearly impossible to survive off of what they pay us.”

On its website, Corcraft says that it employs incarcerated New Yorkers “to produce goods while preparing them for release by teaching them work skills, work ethic, and responsibility,” describing its program as voluntary. Corcraft workers produce a variety of products including license plates, eyeglasses, lockers, school desks, clothing, and cleaning supplies in 14 facilities across the state. The agency even operates DMV call centers from two state prisons. Corcraft is listed as a “preferred source,” which means that state and government agencies such as State University of New York institutions are required to procure needed items like an office chair through those particular vendors.

“Every time somebody stops at a stop sign. Every time somebody stops at a yield sign. Every time someone looks at a highway sign. Anytime you’re looking at the majority of signs that are anywhere, those are made by the blood, sweat, and tears of people that are housed at the Department of Corrections and they’re working for Corcraft industries,” says Wilfredo Laracuente, a community organizer who was released from prison in July 2021. While incarcerated at Green Haven Correctional Facility, he worked as part of a four-man team building and upholstering chairs for pennies on the dollar.

The No Slavery in New York Act seeks to address what advocates say is a loophole in the Constitution. The 13th Amendment, ratified after the Civil War, outlaws slavery and involuntary servitude except for the punishment of a crime. In 2022, voters in Alabama, Vermont, Tennessee, and Oregon approved ballot measures intended to remove language from their constitutions that allowed forced labor as a criminal punishment. Over the past two years, the coalition has traveled several times to Albany to rally in support of the bill with supportive lawmakers reading shared excerpts of the workers’ testimonials.

Under New York law, the bill would have to be passed in two consecutive legislative sessions before it can head to voters as a ballot referendum. This year, the measure has been approved by committee in the State Senate and is awaiting a vote in the Assembly before the current session ends on June 6.

Jesse Koklas, statewide organizer for ending mass incarceration at Citizen Action of NY and a leader with the 13th Forward coalition, says that the public became more aware of the circumstances that incarcerated workers toil under during the COVID-19 pandemic due to reports that Corcraft employees were manufacturing hand sanitizer for the state as well as coffins. According to Koklas, passage of the No Slavery in New York Act would reform the current system where an individual could be punished with isolation or other penalties for refusing a particular assignment or calling out sick.

“They often also lose privileges. It’s really up to the individual staff member overseeing them, but they can lose good-time credits, which makes them eligible for earlier parole or to see a parole board earlier. So, it can push back their parole date if they lose their good time credits. They can lose visiting time and phone time with their families and loved ones,” she says.

Justice advocates such as Koklas are also pushing for another piece of legislation known as the Fairness and Opportunities for Incarcerated Workers Act that would mandate a raise in prison wages, improve pathways to post-incarceration employment, create a prison labor board, and provide safer working conditions for incarcerated workers.

Laracuente believes higher pay would reduce recidivism. “I feel it would create a sense of responsibility. I think it would change the culture and I definitely feel it would be a true remedy to public safety because now people would take pride in working and they wouldn’t come back,” he says.

Source link

Related Articles

Do you run a company that want to build a new website and are looking for a web agency in Sweden that can do the job? At Partna you can get connected to experienced web agencies that are interested in helping you with your website development. Partna is an online service where you simply post your web development needs in order to get business offers from skilled web agencies in Sweden. Instead of reaching out to hundreds of agencies by yourself, let up to 5 web agencies come to you via Partna.
Back to top button