Civil rights and criminal justice groups held a virtual rally on Martin Luther King Day, Jan. 17, to launch their grassroots campaign to raise wages and improve working conditions in New York State prisons. An issue they said furthers modern day “slavery” for incarcerated individuals under the constitution’s 13th Amendment.

The advocacy group is in huge support of State Senator Zellnor Myrie’s Abolish Penal Servitude Act that would end forced labor in prisons. They are also demanding that wages for detainees be raised to at least $3 an hour under the Prison Minimum Wage Act, which Myrie also sponsored.

“Incarcerated people are human beings, who contribute tens of millions of dollars to New York State’s economy,” said Myrie in a statement. “In the depths of the pandemic, incarcerated New Yorkers produced millions of gallons of hand sanitizer for the public, while our prisons became COVID hotspots. It is time to treat these workers with dignity by allowing them to share in the benefits they provide to this state.”

Similarly, Assemblymember Harvey Epstein sponsored bills A3142 and A3481A, both of which deal with labor protections for prisoners.

The advocacy campaign is called #FixThe13thNY, referring to a sort of ‘loophole’ in the 13th Amendment where slavery was abolished in its language, except “as a punishment for crime” or essentially the prison system in New York state.

In New York state, there are more than 46,000 incarcerated according to the State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision’s (DOCCS) January 2019 report. That population is about 48.3% Black and 24.3% Hispanic. Many of these individuals work for the state through Corcraft, a division of the Department of Corrections (DOC), producing various products or services. The jobs range from answering calls in a call center to stamping license plates to building furniture.

The Amsterdam News reached out to DOCCS for up-to-date numbers on their annual revenue, but they were not readily available upon request. Ariel Smallwood, staff attorney for the The Legal Aid Society’s Racial Justice Unit, said DOCCS’ Corcraft generated about “42 million in annual revenue” in the last fiscal year. Revenue which goes directly into the state’s general fund.

DOCCS did, however, state that any insinuation that employment with Corcraft in DOCCS facilities being forced labor is “completely misguided” and that participation in the company’s jobs is voluntary. DOCCS said that Corcraft provides certifications and that successful participation in several Corcraft programs can also result in an incarcerated individual’s earlier release from prison by six months.

“By law, DOCCS is required to follow OSHA regulations for all workers, including incarcerated individuals,” said DOCCS in response to inquiries. “Each of Corcraft’s industries programs are designed to provide incarcerated individuals with meaningful experience in real working environments that will directly translate to comparable work opportunities in the community.”

Smallwood decidedly pushed back at the DOCCS response. She said that the “actual truth” is that people are forced to work everyday, and if they refuse, they are met with consequences. It can go as far as being placed in solitary confinement as a punishment, said Smallwood.

Lisa Zucker, NYCLU senior attorney for legislative affairs, added in the meeting that the legacy of chattel slavery in America lives on through these forced and exploitative labor conditions in prisons and jails.

Vidal Guzman, founder of #FixThe13thNY, spent more than five years in New York State prisons and was one of the launch members of the campaign to close Rikers Island. Guzman said that the campaign was inspired by the Attica prison riot that took place in upstate New York in 1971.

“People incarcerated are paid 16 cents per hour as I was,” said Guzman in the meeting. “I know how it feels to get a paycheck of $4 at the end of the week.”

From a community perspective, Smallwood said that incarcerated people want to work so they can have wages to support their families at home. “When you’re taking someone out of their community that affects the community as a whole in what the community is able to accomplish,” said Smallwood. “Someone who’s incarcerated, they are also our community members and neighbors, and the dignity of being able to work without being forced and them being used as slave labor is an important issue for us all.”

Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w

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