California prisoners could get higher wages under the new plan, but still less than $1 an hour

(Eric Risberg/Associated Press)

California prisoners could get higher wages under the new plan, but still less than $1 an hour

California Politics

Anabel Sosa

November 26, 2023

For the first time in three decades, California’s prison system plans to nearly double most hourly wages for incarcerated workers, a proposal that comes amid a broader debate over prison labor and an effort by progressive activists to ban forced labor as a form of criminal punishment. .

The proposal from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation calls for eliminating all unpaid work assignments and cutting the hours for most prison workers from full-time jobs to half.

time. Prison officials argue that higher wages will have several benefits, including making it easier for inmates to pay back the money they owe for damages from their crimes. Fifty-five percent of prisoners’ wages go to…


restitution costs, according to the Department of Corrections.

Higher wages will give inmates a stronger incentive to take and keep jobs, department spokesperson Tessa Outhyse said in an email. New wages will also help workers meet restitution payments for crime victims and save more money in preparation for their release.


40 percent 40%

of California’s 96,000 inmates have jobs while serving their sentences,

According to the department spokesperson

doing laundry and cleaning work, but also administrative work and construction work. Their wages generally range from 8 cents per hour to 37 cents per hour, depending on the skill level required for the job.

The proposal calls for a doubling of the wage scale, from 16 cents per hour to 74 cents per hour. While although

Prison reform advocates have long argued that wages for incarcerated workers are insufficient; some have doubts about that


pay raise. They say the changes will only increase hourly wages by a few nickels and dimes, and total daily wages by just a few dollars.

We’re not asking for a living wage, we’re asking for a respectable wage, said Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena).

It has made it increasingly difficult for inmates to meet their basic needs in prison, whether it’s deodorant or toothpaste, to help pay restitution owed to victims, to help their families or even to get in touch to stay with their families over the phone.

Bradford is a member of California’s Reparations Task Force, which recommends paying fair market value for prison labor and removing forced labor as a criminal punishment from the state constitution. Lawmakers this year considered a measure known as the End Slavery in California Act, which would eliminate a provision in the state constitution that allows involuntary servitude as a punishment for crime. It was passed by the General Assembly in September and could be heard in the Senate next year. If passed by two-thirds of the Senate, the change must be approved by voters.

Prison officials did not respond to questions about whether the proposal to raise wages is related to the discussion about removing involuntary servitude from the constitution. But their concerns helped squelch an earlier attempt to pass a constitutional ban on involuntary servitude as punishment for crime. In 2022, the Corrections Department told lawmakers


it would cost billions of dollars to pay prisoners’ minimum wage.

The cost to taxpayers was one reason Sen. Steve Glazer (D-Orinda) voted against the measure last year.

“I was concerned about removing the word ‘slavery’ from the Constitution without any detail on how it would be implemented in our prisons and transfer power from the Legislature to the courts,” Glazer said in an interview.

He said he supports raising wages for prison workers. “But at its core, it’s a matter of budget priority,” Glazer said.



show that California is

are likely to face a shortage

of at least several billion dollars each of the next three years.

The Corrections Department’s current plan to increase wages would not require additional funding from the state budget.

according to

spokesperson Outhyse


because hours would be reduced while wages would be increased. She said the budget allocates about $10 million a year for prison wages and that the proposed regulations “will maximize the use of that fund.

Assemblyman Ash Kalra (D-San Jose) said he plans to push the state to consider even higher wages when the legislation returns to Sacramento in January.

It always sounds dramatic when you say something is being doubled, Kalra said. But from 8 cents


16 cents doesn’t really help or give incarcerated workers the dignity they deserve.

He plans to revive Assembly Bill 1516, which stalled last year. It calls on the state to study the social

economic benefits of ending wages below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour for incarcerated workers.

Simply raising wages by a few cents certainly recognizes that there is an agreement that locks them down


are grossly underpaid, Kalra added. But I think there is still a long way to go.

Some of the prisoners work for the fire brigade

and are located in separate conservation camps that provide intensive wildfire training

Under the prison system’s proposal, the income increase would be the largest, with some going from $3.34 per day to $6.68 per day and others from $5.12 to $10.24 per day.

One category of workers would not receive a raise under the plan: approximately 5,700 inmates hired by the California Prison Industry Authority, a separate employer within CDCR, and who are paid on a different pay scale. They work in manufacturing jobs that make products such as glasses, office furniture and shoes


and license plates

which that

are then sold to state departments. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, some of these workers produced face masks for the general population.

At one

press news


last Thursday, November 16, Nov. 16

organized by the Living Wage for All Coalition, a nonprofit focused on ending sub-minimum wages, advocates and criticizes the Corrections Department’s pay increases, arguing that the changes are unethical and unjust because they do not address rising inflation


or ensure a living wage.

Shone Robinson, who served 22 years, said this during the press conference

press news

conference that paying restitution while in detention was “a major hurdle.” Robinson was convicted of second-degree murder in Riverside County and tested as to whether she acted in self-defense, the Press-Enterprise reported in 1997. She was released from prison in 2017 and now works as a life coach with the Anti-Recidivism Coalition.

“Not only did I pay restitution, but I had to start my life outside the prison walls. Being incarcerated at a very young age did not prepare me for what I faced,” Robinson said.

The pay increase was proposed as a new settlement for the state prison system and could be approved after a period of public review that ended last week.

November 22

Jeronimo Aguilar, a policy analyst for

Prisoners with children Legal services for prisoners with children,


the the

Times in which he wonders whether prisoners will earn the same, or even less, due to the transition from full-time to part-time work. He also speculates that the state could ultimately save money.

Ultimately, though, he said he doesn’t want to “blindly oppose these new regulations.”

“We don’t want people inside us to think that we are against it because we want more,” he said. ‘We could waste an opportunity for them. Going from 8 cents to 16 cents may not be much for us, but for someone in need [worker] that’s big.”


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