According to recent reports from the Intercept’s Akela Lacy, much of New York’s incarcerated population was forced to endure dangerous, slave-like working conditions throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to early reports of prisoners manufacturing coffins and hand sanitizer, newer documents reveal that incarcerated people were forced to perform other, more dangerous jobs. Data uncovered by the Intercept shows that inmates in state prisons were expected to complete jobs, such as asbestos abatement and lead paint removal, for penny wages.
Seven states have overturned laws allowing slave labor in prisons, which is exempt under the 13th Amendment’s prohibition of slavery. Currently, New York’s state constitution does not protect the rights of incarcerated workers, nor does it offer any provisions for slavery.
Many of the prisoners affected by these work environments wrote letters to document their experiences, five of which were given to the Intercept to share in its reports. According to the article, the letters describe “unlivable wages of cents per hour; retaliation against people who miss or refuse to perform work, in the form of assault and threats of relocation to more dangerous cell blocks; and inability to afford necessities required to survive in prison.” In one letter an inmate wrote, “even though we are incarcerated we are supposed to be in these prisons for correction, not to be used for slave labor. We are fathers, sons, brothers, and most of all humans.”
One beneficiary of prison labor is Corcraft, a division within the Department of Corrections that manages prison industries. The industry is responsible for providing products to many of New York’s public agencies, including the New York Police Department and the State University of New York. Moreover, Corcraft has created a monopoly on state-affiliated goods and services which forces New York’s institutions and public-benefiting corporations to purchase products from sources recommended by the state.
The Intercept’s reports reveal that Corcraft made $550 million between 2010 and 2021, while worker wages remained between 16 to 65 cents per hour and were capped at $2 a day.
In one of the letters shared with the Intercept, an inmate described their work environment as a “slave to master kind of relationship/treatment with most staff.” They go on to describe how they were physically punished because they “refused to work according to [the officer’s] liking.” Currently, New York lawmakers are considering banning prison labor and establishing a state prison labor board to manage and implement changes to the department. However, no major changes have been made since the publishing of this article.
So far, CNBC and Politico have covered stories about Corcraft and incarcerated people being forced to make hand sanitizer, but neither outlet mentioned that prisoners were forced to remove asbestos and lead paint. Additionally, the outlets did not mention the $550 million dollars Corcraft pocketed from forced prison labor.
Source: Akela Lacy, “Incarcerated People Forced To Do Dangerous Work for ‘Slave’ Wages At Height Of Pandemic,” The Intercept, December 12, 2022.
Student Researcher: Reagan Haynie (Loyola Marymount University)
Faculty Evaluator: Mickey Huff (Diablo Valley College)