Volume 4, Issue 3 March 2004
The Fiscal Year 2003-04 state budget reduced prisoner pay to below Third-World levels. Colorado prisoners previously earned from 63 cents to $2.03 a day from their prison labor. In response to budget pressures, the legislature chopped prisoner pay in half, saving approximately $1.3 million. Prisoners now earn 60 cents a day if employed or 23 cents a day if unemployed. Students at some facilities work half-days for half-pay--30 cents a day.
To their chagrin, Colorado prisoners recently read in a Colorado CURE newsletter that prisoner pay will not be restored to previous levels. One old, broken-down prisoner, Les W., was very disappointed. Last fall, Les would shuffle into my work area every week with the same old rumor: "I heard that the legislature's going to restore our pay in January," he'd say, "and pay us back pay."
"Les," I told him time and again, you remember I've told you that the legislative session doesn't even begin until January and the new budget won't take effect until July. He didn't understand. All he understood was that his state boots hurt his feet and he couldn't afford a new pair of socks, much less a pair of tennis shoes.
Prisoners are paid 60¢ a day, or $12.00 per 20-work day month for their labor. Their pay may be further reduced, to $9.60, by a 20 percent deduction for child support, fines, and fees. From these meager funds, prisoners must provide for all of their hygiene needs. This is not easy, as the following list demonstrates:
|Soap, Irish Spring||3 bars @ .65 each||1.95|
|Shampoo, VO-5||1/2 bottle @ 1.06 each||0.53|
|Toothpaste, Aim||1/2 tube @ .90 each||0.45|
|Toothbrush, Colgate||1/3 each @ .36 each||0.12|
|Floss, Dental||1/2 each @ .95 each||0.48|
|Razors, disposable||10 each @ 1.40 10/pack||1.40|
|Deodorant, Generic||1 each @ .72 each||0.72|
|Aspirin, Generic||1 box/24 @ .75 box||0.75|
|Antacid, Generic||1 box/24 @ .86 box||0.86|
|Toilet paper||4 rolls @ .39 roll||
Toilet paper is listed as the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) generally provides only one roll per prisoner per week. Most prisoners find this insufficient since it must also serve as facial tissue and paper towels.
Colorado's meager prison pay does not provide any room for dietary supplements. I, for example, suffer from macular degeneration and should therefore supplement my diet with vitamins C and E, among others. The CDOC canteen sells 50 tablets of vitamin C for $4.31 and 100 gel caps of vitamin E for $6.86. My state pay does not even begin to cover these, for me, necessary supplements. Medical will not provide these vitamins-- or even an extra orange. I have asked.
The chow hall may provide enough for a sedentary, 5'4", 120- pound man, but I am a slender, active, 6'6", 243-pound, super-sized guy. I am hungry when I go to bed. I am hungry when I wake up. I am hungry when I walk into the chow hall. I am hungry when I walk out of the chow hall. Hunger is a defining characteristic of my existence. I am hungry right now.
Guidelines generally call for an active person, such as myself, to consume one gram of protein for every kilogram of body weight. This being the case, I should consume 110 grams of protein every day. Some authorities recommend 1.2 to 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Unfortunately for me, the dining room serves, on average, about 95 grams of protein a day. Making up the difference from the CDOC canteen would cost several dollars every day. That is somewhat difficult to accomplish when my state pay is only 60 cents a day, up to five days a week.
The pay cut has not been without its expenses. On July 1, 2003, prisoners employed in the Sterling Correctional Facility kitchen refused to work, the first prisoner strike in Colorado since 1978. The facility remained on lockdown status for over a week. A few days later, Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility kitchen workers refused to work and the facility was locked down. Lockdowns are expensive in overtime costs.
As a result, 39 men were transferred from the Sterling and Arkansas Valley facilities to higher security facilities in Canon City, 1 including the Colorado State Penitentiary (CSP), where they are likely housed to this day. It costs some $14,000 a year more to house prisoners at the CSP than at the Sterling or Arkansas Valley facilities. 2 Prisoners spend an average of 18 months at CSP. The increased costs of incarcerating these strikers could run over $800,000.
There have been other hidden costs of the pay cut. Violent crime has increased inside Colorado's prisons. There are more robberies, burglaries, and extortion. Predators stalk the weak, the sickly, and the elderly, especially when they happen to be child molesters.
The predators may force the weak to pay "rent." If they refuse, they are assaulted and robbed of all their possessions. A few months ago, I watched a fifty-something prisoner, Mike G., face down three young bucks who were attempting to extort canteen products from him. They walked away that time, but they returned later. Mike now pays rent and is afraid to come out of his cell.
Mike has few options. If he were to complain to the officers, he would be forever labeled a "rat" and his life would truly become a living hell. He could fight these younger men, but he would only be beaten for his efforts. He would not earn their respect unless he emerged victorious. Even then, they would return with reinforcements. Mike could try to stab one or all of them to death and then spend the rest of his life in the CSP, fearing the retribution of their surviving friends. Or he could just pay them and hope they leave him something of his own.
I interviewed several associates of one group of hoods. I do not name them, even by initials, to protect their anonymity and my own safety. According to them, the pay cuts "absolutely" motivated them to engage in protection and extortion rackets. They later admitted, however, that they would commit these acts regardless because child molesters "don't deserve to have canteen." It is apparent that such victimization occurs regardless of the pay situation, yet it is also apparent that the incidence of this victimization has increased as a result of the prisoner pay cut. Fortunately for all of us, predators like these men are a small minority, constituting one or two percent of the prison population.
A fair pay scale benefits everybody. The present pay scale is insufficient for most prisoners to survive without terrific hardship. There has been an exodus of prisoner-students from educational and vocational programs to Correctional Industries (CI). This temporary boon to CI masks the long-term problems created by prisoners foregoing education and job-skills training. One can hardly blame the prisoners for short-sightedness when the State sends them the message that CI is much more important than education. After all, Correctional Industries pays five to ten times as much.
As Inside Justice recently reported, education has been shown to reduce recidivism.3 The pay cut will increase recidivism in years to come. The State should encourage prisoners to better themselves through educational and vocational training. Today, the pay scale of the CDOC encourages prisoners to forego education and training to work for Correctional Industries.
Prisoner pay supports restitution and child support, forging a beneficial relationship between victim and victimizer. The prisoner pays off his debt to society and thereby unburdens himself financially and of his psychic guilt. The victim receives restitution and the satisfaction that justice is being done and they are being made as whole as possible. This is the justice system at its best.
The value of labor matters even to those in prison. Prisoners perform important, valuable labor in prison, from laundry and food preparation to education and vocational training to Correctional Industries. Prison pay is not welfare. It is compensation for labor performed. Everybody, even prisoners, deserves to be fairly compensated for their labor. Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states in part that "Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration...".
Prisoners do not have a union nor may they withhold their labor as free people may. If a free citizen finds his compensation lacking, he can look for another job. Prisoners do not have that luxury. All prison jobs currently pay the same, so there is little point in shopping around, even if it were possible. Prisoners work when and where the CDOC tells them. If a prisoner chooses not to work he suffers crippling sanctions, including loss of privileges and earned time. If a prisoner chooses to quit his job, well, he can't. He will be infracted for "Refusal to work," sent to segregation, and suffer all the above sanctions and more.
I have spent most of my incarceration working in the education departments of the facilities in which I've been housed. I've tutored many dozens of prisoners in basic computer skills, computer programming, arithmetic, algebra, trigonometry, calculus, reading, writing, and the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I've helped untold numbers of men earn GEDs and college degrees. For these duties, I've been paid from eight cents an hour to 110 cents an hour (At Minnesota’s Prairie Correctional Facility). I obviously don't work for the pay. If pay were my sole motivation, I'd work in Correctional Industries. I work in education because I believe that education is a powerful force for changing people's lives for the better. I wish to help people better themselves. Today I'm paid less than ever. It is a violation of the social contract for a person to work hard and well and yet see his situation worsen again and again through no fault of his own.
Colorado's prison wages lag far behind those of our neighbors. New Mexico pays its prisoners $6.40 a day. Nebraska pays $7.20 a day. Kentucky, while not our neighbor, pays $10.40 a day.4 I barely make that much a month.
Prisoners deserve a fair wage for their labor. We understand that the legislature is struggling with a difficult, near-crisis budget again. Nevertheless, we ask that you support a fair wage for prisoners. We also ask that you direct the CDOC to pay prisoner-students a wage commensurate with Correctional Industries to reflect the true personal and social value of education and vocational training.
1. Mitchell, Kirk. "Sterling prison strike ends quietly as leaders transferred." The Denver Post. July 13, 2003, p. 29A. BACK
2. Rosten, Kristi. Fiscal Year 2002 Statistical Report." Colorado Department of Corrections, p. 28. BACK
3. Bowers, G.A. "Correctional Education Is Cost Effective." Inside Justice, Volume 4, Issue 1. January 2004. BACK
4. Mitchell, Kirk. "Inmate cooks stage strike." The Denver Post. July 2, 2003, p. lB. BACK
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