At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, news outlets reported that incarcerated people in New York were being forced to make hand sanitizer and coffins. Though elected officials and advocates for criminal justice reform were quick to criticize what they called the use of “slave labor” in the state’s pandemic response, the extent of this work by the incarcerated was never known.
New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision data obtained by The Intercept reveals that people incarcerated in state prisons were also forced to perform a range of other jobs for penny wages during the height of the pandemic, including asbestos abatement and removal of lead paint.
“Covid pulled the curtain back on what has always existed in New York, which are these slave-like conditions for people who are incarcerated,” said Lisa Zucker, a senior attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union. People incarcerated in jails aren’t just making license plates or mass-producing hand sanitizer, Zucker said: “Literally the chairs that members of the legislature sit on are made by incarcerated people. When you call the Department of Motor Vehicles, you are talking to someone incarcerated at the Bedford Women’s Facility.”
“Covid pulled the curtain back on what has always existed in New York, which are these slave-like conditions for people who are incarcerated.”
Seven states have abolished slavery for people convicted of crimes, which is allowed as an exception to the prohibition of slavery in the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. New York’s state constitution has no provision mentioning slavery, nor any protections for incarcerated workers. “Alabama’s in there, so it’s embarrassing and shameful that New York has not done this,” Zucker said.
People incarcerated in New York state prisons have documented their working conditions in letters to legal advocates, five of which were shared with The Intercept. 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 basic necessities required to survive in prison.
In a statement to The Intercept, Department of Corrections spokesperson Thomas Mailey said incarcerated people participating in asbestos abatement services programs was akin to training for eventual release, and that the jobs followed federal workplace safety guidelines. The department has a zero-tolerance policy for sexual abuse or harassment, Mailey said, launching investigations and, when appropriate, disciplining rule violators and referring cases for criminal prosecution.
“In delivering such programs, the Department must recognize the right of every individual to receive humane treatment and to have their health and safety protected,” Mailey said. He also referenced a report following the 1971 Attica prison uprising: “It is to be noted that idleness amongst the population must be avoided for overall safety and security.”
For people behind bars, the primary concern is not one of idleness but being treated with dignity. “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,” wrote one incarcerated man in a letter obtained by The Intercept. People in prison are supposed to learn to fix their mistakes, learn trades, become a better family member, and “earning a living by working for it,” he added. “Many of us left kids outside these walls and want to do for them but how can you making $6 every two weeks? What part of correction is this?”
NYCLU is part of a coalition of more than 35 legal advocacy, grassroots organizing, and criminal justice groups promoting several bills in the state Legislature that would end forced labor in New York and provide protections for incarcerated workers, including a fair wage, safe labor conditions, and pathways for employment after release. Also part of the coalition, called 13th Forward, are Vocal New York, New York Communities for Change, the Center for Popular Democracy, the Bronx Defenders, and the Legal Aid Society, which obtained the prison labor data through a Freedom of Information Law request and shared it with The Intercept.
While the Covid-19 pandemic heightened attention to forced labor in New York state prisons, elected officials who say they’re concerned about the nexus of crime, mental illness, and homelessness should treat the issue as one of public health, Zucker said. “If you don’t treat people as human beings when they’re in prison, what do you expect them to feel like when they get out?”
Within the state’s Department of Corrections is a division called Corcraft, which operates its prison industries. Corcraft provides products to public agencies throughout the state, including the New York Police Department and the State University of New York. As one of New York’s three preferred source organizations, Corcraft has a partial monopoly on goods and services purchased and sold by state agencies, and state law requires state institutions and public benefit corporations to purchase goods from the state’s preferred sources if they meet the agency’s needs in form, function, and utility.
Corcraft made $550 million from 2010 to 2021. “The revenue received from the sale of products and services covers the expenses associated with operating the program,” the Corcraft website says.
Wages for Corcraft jobs range from 16 to 65 cents per hour and are capped at $2 per day. Job titles include taxi and truck drivers, tailors, welders, nurse aides, plumbers, laundry operators, maintenance laborers, porters, mechanics, and various other industrial jobs, including digging graves and burying indigent people. Incarcerated people perform jobs both outside and inside prisons, including those required to keep facilities running, like dining, maintenance, repair, and health services.
Incarcerated people doing the jobs inside facilities, including dangerous jobs like asbestos and lead paint removal, effectively keep the prison system functioning. “It’s dehumanizing to pay people those slave wages,” Zucker said.
“New York State has created a perverse incentive by relying on products made from the theft and exploitation of incarcerated people’s labor,” the Legal Aid Society, a nonprofit that contracts to do public defense work in New York City, wrote in a January report on state prison labor. “Similar to the discriminatory scheme of convict leasing, we see higher rates of incarceration in Black and Latinx communities across the state thus forcing more Black and Latinx workers into unsafe and unfair prison labor that feeds the state’s desire for cheap products at the expense of Black and Latinx communities.”
In a letter shared with The Intercept, one person who has been incarcerated for three decades and worked numerous jobs described the prison labor system as a “slave to master kind of relationship/treatment with most staff” and said they had been punished and assaulted “because I refused to work according to this particular officer’s liking.”
The wages paid by prison jobs aren’t enough to afford basic things like clothes, toothpaste, or toilet paper. “With inflation and price of goods constantly rising, it’s hard to get what’s needed,” the incarcerated person wrote. “The 60 cent stamp is almost a two-day pay.” The state claims to spend $60,000 a year on each individual prisoner, but “that’s extremely hard to believe when one is living in abject poverty.”
Half of individuals incarcerated in the U.S. provided at least 50 percent of their family’s income before being imprisoned. Penny wages and financial penalties for misbehavior or missing work can even put incarcerated people in debt, prolong their imprisonment, and make it harder to find employment after release, increasing the chances of recidivism.
“With inflation and price of goods constantly rising, it’s hard to get what’s needed. The 60 cent stamp is almost a two-day pay.”
The state’s prison labor system originated 200 years ago at Auburn Prison, where prisons started forcing incarcerated people to work during the day as an alternative to the previous system of constant solitary confinement. Incarcerated people have been making products for New York state for more than 100 years.
One of the labor program’s main goals “was to create a self-sustaining prison system,” Zucker said. “It’s just a vicious cycle. An endless supply of workers are imprisoned to support the very prison that is incarcerating them.”
And while the jobs range in function and physical difficulty, there is no distinction between good jobs and bad jobs in a system of forced labor, said Jackie Goldzweig Panitz, a paralegal in the employment law unit at Legal Aid who has been working on the group’s campaign to end prison labor and obtained the Department of Corrections data through a Freedom of Information Law request. “Every job is dangerous when someone is denied worker’s rights,” Goldzweig Panitz said.
A common theme emerged in letters from currently incarcerated people shared with The Intercept: Prison labor is a form of slavery that takes away their dignity on top of the punishment inflicted by their incarceration.
“As a mother and grandmother I feel inadequate because I am no longer able to order gifts from a catalog for birthdays nevermind to clothe myself,” one currently incarcerated woman wrote. “I am forced to have to ask my son for a pair of decent sneakers or go without groceries to save up for them. This system is extremely unfair, especially for those of us so far away from our families. They pay to communicate with us, they pay to see us, why should they pay to feed and clothe us too?”
“I am unable to make more money to better my situation and certainly can NOT to prepare for a new life in society. I question where is the rehabilitation if we are forced to depend upon others to meet our needs?”
New York legislators are currently considering reform bills that would prohibit forced labor in prisons and establish a state prison labor board to oversee the implementation of changes to the system. The first bill was referred to the state Senate Judiciary Committee in March, and the second was referred to the Crime Victims, Crime, and Correction Committee in January. (Asked whether the Department of Corrections would support either bill, Mailey, the spokesperson, said the department does not comment on possible or pending legislation.)
The 13th Forward coalition is also supporting a bill to amend the state constitution to prohibit slavery and involuntary servitude, including for people convicted of crimes. “When you talk about institutional racism, you’re talking about things that are baked into the system that nobody even notices anymore. I think that’s true of prison labor,” Zucker said. “It’s been this way for over 100 years and no one challenges it. Because people feel like, ‘Oh you did the crime? Well, obviously we can treat you as slave labor.’”
It’s difficult for the general public to understand that when you commit a crime, the punishment is being separated from your family for many years in an institution, Zucker said.
“That is the punishment,” she said. “To treat people like slaves is beyond punishment. And it does nothing for rehabilitation and reentry. And those two things are something we all should be concerned about, because those are matters of public safety.”