Sacramento, CA – November 27, 2023
In a historic move, the California prison system is considering a significant wage increase for incarcerated workers, marking the first such proposal in three decades. The plan aims to nearly double most hourly wages for prisoners, addressing concerns over the adequacy of compensation for those serving time. However, the suggested wage boost falls under scrutiny as it may still leave many earning less than $1 an hour.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has put forth a proposal to eliminate all unpaid work assignments and reduce the work hours for most prisoners from full-time to half-time. The department contends that higher wages will offer several benefits, including aiding inmates in repaying restitution costs for damages caused by their crimes.
Approximately 40% of California’s 96,000 prisoners engage in various jobs during their sentences, ranging from laundry and janitorial work to clerking and construction. Currently earning between 8 cents and 37 cents per hour, the proposed plan seeks to double the wage range, setting it between 16 cents and 74 cents per hour.
CDCR spokesperson Tessa Outhyse emphasized that the increased pay would incentivize incarcerated individuals to accept and retain jobs, while also helping them meet restitution payments for crime victims and save money for their release.
Despite the long-standing advocacy for higher wages for incarcerated workers, skepticism surrounds the proposed pay increase. Some argue that the adjustments will only marginally increase hourly wages, with overall daily pay seeing minimal improvement.
State Senator “Steven Bradford (D-Gardena), a member of California’s Reparations Task Force,” expressed reservations about the proposed increase, stating, “We are not asking for a liveable wage, we are asking for a respectable wage.”
The discussion on prisoner wages coincides with broader debates on prison labor, and lawmakers are considering measures such as the “End Slavery in California Act” to eliminate involuntary servitude as a punishment for crimes. Previous attempts to pass such measures faced challenges, including concerns about budget implications.
The current proposal by CDCR does not require additional funding from the state budget, as the plan involves reducing work hours while increasing wages. However, some lawmakers remain cautious, considering California’s projected budget shortfall in the coming years.
Assemblyman Ash Kalra (D-San Jose) intends to reintroduce Assembly Bill 1516, which calls for studying the socioeconomic benefits of ending wages below the federal minimum wage for incarcerated workers. Kalra emphasized the need for more substantial wage improvements to provide incarcerated workers with the dignity they deserve.
While the proposed wage increase awaits approval after a period of public review, questions linger about whether it truly addresses the concerns of prisoners and adequately reflects the value of their labor. Advocates stress the importance of avoiding token gestures and striving for meaningful changes in the compensation and treatment of incarcerated individuals.