After a long, dreadful week of working the mess hall, Vidal Guzman received a paycheck totaling $3.50. With it, he was able to purchase only four items—toothpaste, two packs of soup, and a single postage stamp. He had initially protested being stationed to work the mess hall, but they gave him an ultimatum, it was either that or he could go back to solitary confinement. Anyone who has spent a considerable amount of time jailed in complete isolation for 23 hours a day can tell you that it is pure torture. People often hallucinate and, in extreme cases, face irreversible mental damage. For Guzman, who spent two and a half years in solitary altogether, going back was not an option. He surrendered to the forced labor of the mess hall and its abysmal wages, just one of many dehumanizing factors of a prison system designed to enrich corporations at the expense of the incarcerated.
As discussions of raising the federal minimum wage to $15 take center stage, activists are also pushing to raise the minimum wage for prison labor to $3 an hour. In the regular world, that is not much at all. But compared to the few pennies most incarcerated people are currently paid in many states, it would be a huge improvement. The Prison Policy Initiative reports that the vast majority of incarcerated people “spend their days working in custodial, maintenance, grounds keeping, or food service jobs for the institutions that confine them.” The average pay for non-industry prison jobs is 86 cents an hour, seven cents less than what it was in 2001. And for the most part, regular prison jobs are unpaid in states such as Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Texas.
“This has been a huge problem since the 13th Amendment was ratified,” Guzman notes. After being tried as an adult at 16 and spending several years behind bars for gang affiliation, he became a community organizer, currently working with policy think tank The Next 100. “It still is a huge problem now, because we have legal slavery, and because of this you can force people into forced labor, and you can get people to be paid 16 cents. In some places, in Texas, some [incarcerated] people don’t even get paid for their labor.”
Recent strides in the area of civil rights for the imprisoned has seen several states move to eliminate the permissible slavery clause in the 13th Amendment. Article II, Section 26 of the US constitution states: “Slavery prohibited. There shall never be in this state either slavery or involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” In Colorado, lawmakers voted in favor of amending it to say, “There shall never be in this state either slavery or involuntary servitude.” Other states are following suit, with similar bills being passed or proposed in California, Florida, Tennessee, Utah, Nebraska, and New Jersey.
Guzman aims to run a campaign for the amendment of the 13th in New York State, where he was formerly incarcerated. Launching a successful campaign with overwhelming public support will increase the chances of a Senator sponsoring the Bill, which increases the chances of it being voted on by the Senate and moving to the Governor’s table. Equally important to removing the slavery clause, though, is the idea of raising wages and increasing opportunities for incarcerated workers.
“I know what it is to be forced into forced labor,” he says, “And I also know what it means to get paid nothing at all, and still be in debt, come home and still not be exposed to real opportunities. Because my personal experience of what these facilities was forcing me to do, wasn’t jobs that I was actually coming home and using at all.”
The imprisoned face a work culture where there is both a lack of transferrable skills and a lack of adequate remuneration. A number of those imprisoned come from low-income communities and are already less likely to have significant levels of education or job experience. A prison system that exacerbates the disconnection from necessary resources is one that does not prepare people to be reintegrated to society, but to go right back to prison. Of the more than 600,000 individuals released from state and federal prison every year, over two thirds are rearrested after release and half are reincarcerated. In order to lower the rates of recidivism, a more rehabilitative approach is needed, as opposed to a heavily punitive one.
Quite simply, we need to treat incarcerated people as human, and that begins with paying them a livable wage. A person should not have to ration two packs of soup through one week, as Guzman did, or save two weeks’ worth of wages to purchase a box of tampons. They should be paid enough to meet their immediate needs, as well as start a savings fund or support their own families. Many incarcerated people have children from whom they are separated, or were Heads of Households. Fair wages could allow them to sustain themselves and their loved ones and set them up with more savings and less debt for life after lockup. Programs emphasizing financial literacy, teaching skills such as budgeting, would also enable them to better manage money, and be better prepared for the outside world. More relevant prison jobs and training would also be incredibly beneficial, but for now, raising the wages is the low hanging fruit.
According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, “When reentry fails, the costs are high—more crime, more victims, and more pressure on already-strained state and municipal budgets.” People like Guzman are living proof that the incarcerated can successfully reenter society, but we must be willing to invest in their well-being while inside. He stresses that it is the best way to lower recidivism rates and achieve a safer, more just society while ensuring that labor rights are extended to all.
We have people who think that people when they are incarcerated should be treated as less than human. When we talk about wages, when we look at what’s being said, one of the number one things is that we want people to be returned to society being prepared, being exposed, and being the best community member they can be. The only way we’re able to do that is from the beginning stages, of having someone get paid enough wages so that they can be able to not just buy the stuff that they need, but also have funding to take care of their families somewhat, in some capacity, and to prepare them to go back to society. Because we know that when people understand their abilities with money, how to deal with money, what to do with it, it benefits them when they come home.