During the recent discussion about Proposal 2, which, if passed, would prohibit slavery and indentured servitude in the state constitution, its effect on incarcerated people working inside our state prisons came up. Are these people working as slaves of the state?
In a September 20,2022 article in VtDigger, we read:
“Rachel Feldman, a spokesperson for the state Department of Corrections, told VTDigger that the department does “not see any issue with Proposal 2 and our current policies and practices” around employing incarcerated Vermonters. Those workers do earn less per hour than minimum wage, Feldman said, but they are not forced to perform labor, and they apply for their positions at correctional facilities.”
This is true, but the facts as stated here don’t describe the situation in the facilities. To say that the workers earn less than minimum wage is an understatement. the great majority of them make $1.25 a day (yes, per day), or less. A handful of jobs requiring more skill can pay as much as $7 a day. Still, there are not enough jobs to go around, and people are grateful for the small amount that they can earn.
What the state provides for incarcerated people for personal hygiene and clothing is inadequate. If you don’t have a job and a small income, you simply can not have all your needs met. If you have family with the means to put money into your commissary account, you can get by without a job. If you are indigent, and jobless, things are very difficult for you indeed. And if you happen to be one of the many Vermonters held in segregation — solitary confinement — then your situation is even more dire.
So given that people are inadequately cared for, and are making pennies per hour, you might say that falls under the definition of slave labor: labor that is coerced and inadequately rewarded. But if you don’t agree that it constitutes slavery, you might at least agree that incarcerated Vermonters are being treated unfairly.
As I see it, if DOC had to replace all those resident workers with outside workers, or even by paying incarcerated people a couple of dollars an hour — still not minimum wage — the system would be unsustainable. The monetary expense would be too high. It might lead to the collapse of the system as we know it, and make way for a new, more effective way to deal with harm in our communities.
— Meg McCarthy
Would Vermont’s Anti-Slavery Amendment Impact Prison Labor?