What can I buy with 40 cents? Not much.
That’s a decision incarcerated men and women in California make daily. Despite a honest good-days worth of work, they earn 40 cents an hour, a whopping 3.6 percent of California’s minimum wage for the rest of us.
For decades, prisoners have been working while incarcerated. Whether it is making license plates or doing laundry, prison labor is not a new issue. However, the debate over its morality has recently been amplified with the over 2,000 prisoners helping to fight recent California wildfires, for pay that is roughly $1 per day according to the Washington Examiner. For the past few weeks, prisoners across the country were striking to protest against inmate pay. Across the nation, prisoners volunteering to work are being paid either a few cents per hour or nothing at all. The bottom line is that prisoners should be paid a just and reasonable amount for doing work while incarcerated in order to prepare them for life in front of bars, not behind them.
Here are the facts. In a regular non-industry job, as an incarcerated prisoner in our country, the maximum hourly salary could be $2—Minnesota is the only state with wages that high, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. To students in Marin, who often complain about getting paid less than $15 per hour to babysit, this number should be especially shocking. Even in our own state, prisoners only earn roughly 40 cents per hour for non-industry jobs. A handful of states don’t even pay prisoners for working, including Texas, South Carolina and Georgia.
According to the New York Times, many inmates are struggling to pay for basic aspects of prison and life: phone calls home, deodorant and other goods from prison commissionaires.
Take it from Chandra Bozelko, an author and previously incarcerated woman—working during her days in prison was the best taste of the real world she could get. She worked in a kitchen, earning a salary of between 75 cents and $1.25 daily.
“My prison job made me feel like I was fulfilling my existential duty to society: I was contributing,” Bozelko wrote in the LA Times.
Yes, criminals have committed crimes. Most incarcerated men and women around the country are incarcerated for a reason. But it makes no sense to cut off a method of rehabilitation that many prisoners enjoy. By paying little to nothing for volunteer work (which, by the way, is work that we as the public often benefit from) we give prisoners no incentive to rehabilitate themselves through work and prepare for life outside.
Yes, first and foremost, prison is a punishment for bad behavior. But what is the point of allowing people to rot behind bars when they could be doing beneficial work for themselves and for the country? Not only is it logical to allow this work, but to provide them with compensation to use the skills they’ve learned when they are released.And, enough compensation to not only cover trivial day-to-day basics of living, but to begin planning for the future. If the prison system cannot get its act together enough to figure out that rehabilitation is the most essential part of incarceration, what are they doing? It’s dehumanizing to pay workers amounts that cannot even buy them toothpaste, and this injustice has needed addressing for some time now.
Prisoners are risking a lot for this strike. According to USA Today, they face possible time in solitary confinement as well as their good behavior records being barred. If this strike means enough for a prisoner to sacrifice a potential early release, it should mean enough for the country to take a long, careful look at the issue.
I’m not suggesting we flush inmates with cash, but wages under $1 an hour are absurd. Even paying inmates under minimum wage would allow them to start planning for life outside of the confines of control. At present, there are states that simply don’t have the money for this, and there are other states that don’t have the support. However, it’s time the government, whether it be federal or state, takes initiative to reform the prison system.
A strike doesn’t last forever. Too often are issues like this swept under the rug as soon as the media stops frequent coverage. It may seem that inmate pay is an issue that is far away from home, but the reality is that this is an injustice and no matter how far away an injustice may seem, the gates to San Quentin are a lot closer.