New York Prisoners' Report on Labor and Economics

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[Prison Labor] [New York] [ULK Issue 8]
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New York Prisoners' Report on Labor and Economics

"Neither Slavery nor Involuntary Servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States..."
—Thirteenth Amendment, United States Constitution

History of Legalized Slavery

The Thirteenth Amendment was ratified by Congress by the required three-fourths of the States (27 of 36) on January 31, 1865, and declared an amendment December 18, 1865. To understand it in a prison setting, it is important to look at the history after it was ratified until today.

It was during the time of the enactment of the Thirteenth Amendment that "slaves", or better yet, the offspring of slaves had heightened their resistance to this torture and inhumane treatment that they inherited by bad luck. Slave leaders like Fredrick Douglas and Harriet Tubman started to educate themselves, assist in the escape of other slaves, and lobby for the rights that they felt they were due. Former slaves, escaped slaves, and others sympathetic to them led negotiations of the Thirteenth Amendment.

Once enacted, what was to be a victory for slaves, the Thirteenth Amendment later became nothing more than a smoke screen. When southern slave owners figured out that the second part to the amendment gave exception "as a punishment for crime" crafty southern lawmakers substituted various equivalents. One of these was "peonage." Peonage is a labor system in which the worker, who owes money to his or her employer, must "work off the debt." The term also can be defined, however, as virtual slavery or serfdom. Southern states enacted a series of laws that required, as punishment, high fines. Poor, now-"free" slaves were forced to borrow money to pay the fines and "work off" the debt, often times never paying off the interest. Some "crimes" included breaking curfews, and vagrancy.

The Freedman's Bureau, a government agency established to help former slaves assume responsibility as free citizens, attempted to replace "Peonage" with contracts. However, southern " Black Codes" prevented much progress. Vagrancy laws were abundant, and slavery was still existent, just under an alias.

In 1867, Congress enacted the Peonage Act in New Mexico, applying it to all of America. Now it was a felony to hold a person in Peonage or to seize or arrest a person to enforce Peonage. This same act outlawed any state law designed to enforce Peonage. In the 1900's the Peonage Act was accepted in full.

As we'll see below, modern laws and policies continue this legacy with many of the same oppressor nation motivations as in the 19th century.

Control those who can't be exploited

Every year, hundreds of thousands of mostly Black and Latino men from the 5 boroughs of NYC go thru the biggest county jail in the united $tates: Rikers Island in New York. After being convicted (which happens 70% of the time), private contractors bus them to state prisons upstate, more than 2/3rds of which are in rural areas with almost all white populations. Most of the officers, nurses, vocational instructors, etc. are from farming populations that lost their traditional economies largely to imperialist expansion into foreign markets in the Third World where they can exploit the people and buy food for excessively cheap prices.

Prisons are now the epicenter around which many towns have sprung up, reviving the dying rural communities. The local populations compete for these jobs, which are unique in their high wages and pension plans, while requiring minimal thinking ability.

No one can deny the stark increase in incarceration of Blacks within the past three decades. This increase is largely due to policies and harsh laws which are racially motivated. One notorious example is the federal guideline that sentences people to 10 years for possession of 5 grams of crack or 500 grams of cocaine, when whites are much more likely to be caught with cocaine. No study has ever proven that crack - cocaine in its coagulated form - is more harmful than its powder form. And though this law was modified recently, its purpose has already been served.

Since the end of slavery's role as a profitable enterprise by the u$ farming industry, the principal question for law officials has been, 'What is to be done about the fast growing population of restless young Black men?' - Prison has become the solution to this never ending problem. A population that is no longer a significant source of labor to be exploited, nor allowed to be junior partners to the imperialists, has no role to play in the modern imperialist economy. Hence, we have seen the growing lumpen class behind u$ prison walls.

Prison serves three valuable solutions, or better yet, prison has been the solution which can be explained in three forms.

  1. Prison is used as a social contraceptive to reduce and control population growth.
  2. Prison is a way to ebb the radical political consciousness of the people. To separate those radical elements among oppressed nations from influencing others to seek change rather than reform.
  3. Prison has been used as a way to deal with rising unemployment and stem entry into the already declining job market. (This is true despite the fact that after years of incarceration, most Blacks and Latinos are released to their communities with little hopes for employment, regardless of any participation in vocational programs.)

As we can see, the prison system is much more than an economic force exploiting labor. This is not to deny economic benefit that is reaped by the corporate elites and the amerikan so-called "worker" stooges. Prison, as a part of the capitalist system, has a further implication beyond jobs; it is also a way to repress other nations of people: the Black, Latino and indigenous nations, as well as migrants from the Third World.

Economics of NY Prisons

New York State Department of Correctional Services (DOCS), has approximately 60,000 inmates. In this system, "programs" are mandatory. Programs range from industry work, to maintenance, to pseudo-rehabilitative or educational programs. Most people work to keep the facility up and running. The five pay grades are as follows:

Grade 116¢ per hour
Grade 225¢ per hour
Grade 332¢ per hour
Grade 438¢ per hour
Grade 542¢ per hour

Each facility is limited to a small number of people being paid grade five, so in all actuality Grade 4 is top pay. Grade 4 is reserved for foremen, who are a special class within themselves where the old rule of divide and conquer prevails. They have proven their loyalty to the system through years of hard work and often report other prisoners if something goes wrong - many of these positions are given to white prisoners.

There are "industries" in several facilities: Attica specializes in making lockers that you find in state office buildings; Great Meadow specializes in manufacturing various chemicals such as liquid soap to clean public transportation and soap that is given to inmates; Coxsackie manufactures bed sheets, pillow cases, clothing worn by doctors and nurses, as well as money bags used by banks. All of these items are manufactured under the name "CorCraft." CorCraft made over $40 million in 2005, while prisoners were paid pennies. CorCraft is a government industry so the $40 million all goes back into the state General Fund, essentially offsetting some of the cost of running prisons or other public "services."

A "bonus" is given based on the individual productivity of every prison. For example, at grade 2 my base pay for a 40 hour work week is $10.00 (all programs other than Industry work 25 hour work weeks). With a 50% bonus I would make $15.00. Unlike all other prison programs, Industry workers punch a time clock and are forced to punch out whenever they leave their shops, even for meals which are in most cases mandatory.

An inmate in DOCS, comes in with a substantial debt to pay automatically: $40.00 Gate Fees, $150.00 Surcharge, $50.00 DNA fee, $20.00 Victims Fee. Additional debts may include restitution, child support, appeals fees, legal fees, processing fees, disciplinary sanctions (if incurred), etc. Oftentimes these amounts run into the thousands of dollars, and higher.

The cost of Commissary staple items, hygiene supplies, stamps, etc., have increased so dramatically that, in proportion, the payment DOCS pays in exchange for hard work becomes virtually worthless. For example, at $0.13 an hour, after a three hour work day mowing lawns in 90-degree weather, an inmate still cannot afford even one $0.42 stamp. The pay deteriorates even more if a percentage of the inmate's earnings must go toward fees, surcharges, fines, or other obligations.

Where it leaves us

Previous challenges to DOCS Peonage system of pay have been unsuccessful because DOCS maintains that they are not "paying" but rather "compensating" inmates for their "program" participation. International Law, such as the Geneva Convention, is pretty clear that prisoners of war cannot be "forced to work" without compensation. However, it does not state what compensation is. The Japanese, for example, compensate their prisoners with food.

In fact, food is one of the greatest incentives for New York inmates to work inside of prison. The Mess Hall is one of prison's more unpredictable locations. While the Mess Hall is mandatory for all meals in some prisons, here in DOCS, attendance is elective. In order to avoid potential conflicts, when possible, many inmates choose to skip the Mess Hall meal and eat a quick sandwich with Commissary items. A positive account balance is required in order to purchase food from the Commissary.

Another great incentive for prisoners to do work is postage. Years of study have proven that inmates who work to maintain family ties strive to do well in general prison populations. Inmates who receive visits do even better, and those who do not maintain family ties are statistically more vulnerable to problems. The ability to correspond with family is usually essential to maintaining family ties. If a person cannot afford a stamp after three hours of hard labor, the incentive for that person to be positive for the remainder of the day greatly diminishes.

DOCS originally established a system to pay inmates, in order to prevent theft and encourage inmates to work. However, by not paying a meaningful wage, what DOCS actually creates is a mirror of the Peonage System. An inmate in prison for ten years, without the assistance of family, may leave prison, not only still in debt, but convinced that hard work is useless and that society is inherently unfair. This is one of the results of a system based on punishing individuals, rather than changing the system that created their bad behaviors. In contrast, a socialist prison system serves to turn those who commit crimes against the people into productive contributors to society.

If the DOCS simply raised the "compensation" from pennies to even just $1.50/hour, this financial outlay surely would pay for itself. An inmate who has no hope of meeting his needs through legitimate earnings is likely to attempt to get what he wants, i.e. stamps, food, cigarettes, etc., by illegitimate means: thievery, violence, extortion, gambling, etc. Such activity increases the likelihood of claims for property, of altercations and of injuries, which lead to civil actions brought against the State.

It is time for the State to increase "compensation" for inmates - compensation that will assist inmates in maintaining hope and in maintaining family ties while inside of prison, and compensation that will convince inmates that there truly is benefit in working hard to earn one's way toward productive life, once they get outside.

MIM(Prisons) supports the application of a global minimum wage under capitalism. Although it would have to be taken into consideration that prisoners are provided with most basic needs before being paid - as poor as they may be.

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