Should Prisoners Be Paid Minimum Wage? (video)

Reframing Justice

The minimum wage in Arizona is $12 per hour. Arizona prisoners do a variety of jobs from manual labor to answering phones for the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT), for which they are paid anywhere between 10 cents to $3 per hour. The ADOT Service Arizona call center workers are the highest paid prisoners, but $3 per hour is far less than minimum wage.

Why should prisoners be paid more? 1) Because many of the prisoners have families “on the outside” who depended upon support from that person “on the inside”. 2) Because the prison industrial complex and the state of Arizona not only pay substandard wages to prisoners, they nickel and dime them and their families with fees. Yes, people “on the inside” and people “on the outside” pay fees to Corporate America and to government(s). The problem is that most prisoners lived in poverty before they went to prison, and their families likely don’t have the financial float to sustain them without a wage-earner and pay fees to stay in contact with their loved one.

The State of Arizona eliminated the Parole Board back in 1993, when “tough on crime” and “truth in sentencing” were vogue. Add this to the fact that the Republican-controlled Legislature jumped enthusiastically into private prisons during the Tea Party Reign of Terror.

Now, Arizona forces prisoners to serve 80 percent of their sentences (regardless of rehabilitation, good behavior or cost), imposes unnecessary fees for basic services to prisoners (like making an appointment with the doctor or having phone privileges to talk with their families), forces them to work nearly free to pay fees for services and necessities (like a second orange jumpsuit), and allows the Prison Industrial Complex to make millions on them while they are warehoused unnecessarily for years. When families visit prisoners, they can’t bring food in (because there could be a file in that cake), so they have to buy food from vending machines. You can imagine how much a family with children would spend on unhealthy vending machine food in a day at the prison. Loved ones come to the prison with $40 in quarters to buy substandard food while visiting. Prisoners (and their families) pay millions per year in concessions and fees to the Prison Industrial Complex– in addition to losing loved ones to an unjust system in an unjust state, which *eliminated* the Parole Board. People who signed “25 to life” plea bargains are being cheated by the State of Arizona. Five hundred inmates have served 25 years of a “25 to life” sentence and are now just sitting in prison because there is no parole. The least we can do is pay them for their labor. 

But even better, why not fix the prison system? Arizona locks up too many people for too long. In 2019, there was a lot of bipartisan enthusiasm for real prison reform. Unfortunately, a handful of powerful men stopped reform.

Many prison reforms are needed. For example, Arizona law used to state that for every two days of work a prisoner could get one day off of their sentence for good behavior. Years ago, the law was changed, and now prisoners have to work six days in order to get one day off. (We tried to change that back to 2:1 in 2019, but it was stopped by powerful Republican Legislators.) Not only are we paying slave wages, we are requiring prisoners to work much longer at these slave wages to get any benefit (besides some spending money). I learned today on Reframing Justice Day at the Capitol that since there is no Parole Board, prisoners have no good way of tracking their work time, besides the fact that parole has pretty much been eliminated. They also said that Arizona’s Clemency Board pretty much doesn’t do clemency. (What kind of medieval state do we live in?)

This is inhumane, unfair, and extremely expensive in terms of lost human capital, disrupted families,  out-of-pocket costs, and societal distress from children living without parents.

Who benefits from forcing prisoners to work years for very little money? Corporate America — and governments who want to save money– benefit. As long as there is a steady supply of workers who are forced to work for far less than minimum wage– like prisoners, migrants and university interns (who work for free), families will struggle, while corporations make money and governments save money, at their expense.

It’s time for all Arizona workers — regardless if where they live — to be paid minimum wage or more. Not less. Also, earned release and mandatory sentencing laws should be fixed. We shouldn’t be warehousing people unnecessarily.

Really… system-wide prison reform is necessary. I learned a lot about prisons during the interim. I participated in an Arizona Town Hall dialogue with prisoners at the Whetstone prison on South Wilmot and attended a Lucha Listens session with prisoners and family members. The stories are compelling. We need to listen and fix the system.

There are some modest reform bills in the Legislature. Will a handful of men stop reform again in 2020? If so, we can fix that problem in November 3, 2020.