Social justice group demands end to forced prison labor in New York, releases inmate letters describing harsh conditions

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An inmate advocacy group is calling for an end to forced prison labor in New York State and has released hundreds of letters describing the personal accounts of inmates working tough jobs for less than $1 per hour.

The group, known as 13th Forward, founded by Worth Rises and The Legal Aid Society, released the letters as part of its call for the passage of the No Slavery in New York Act, which would outlaw forced labor in prisons by granting inmates the right to refuse to work. Advocates also call for better working conditions and a pay raise, among other requests. 

Advocates for the legislation, which has been introduced in both the Assembly and Senate, say that incarcerated New Yorkers are often coerced into arduous jobs for meager wages. They claim that inmates are often mistreated by prison staff and are required to perform dangerous tasks. The pay, they say, barely covers the cost of commissary goods—and only after multiple hours of labor. 

According to The Legal Aid Society, incarcerated workers earn an average of $0.62 an hour, with some making as little as $.10 per hour. In comparison, minimum wage workers in New York State make $15 an hour and in New York City and surrounding areas, $16 per hour. 

In one of the letters, an unnamed inmate felt exploited by the low pay and said that prison wages bought next to nothing. “It is increasingly frustrating because the prices at the commissary are regularly raised to match inflation, yet our pay remains unjustly at slave wages established long ago.”

Commissary items range from food to personal hygiene products. Many inmates lack outside financial support to buy such products and rely on their prison wages to pay for them.  

One inmate wrote in a letter that it took about two hours—at $0.45 an hour—to buy one single USPS stamp.

Low pay is not the inmates’ only complaint. Most say they end up working jobs that do not align with their interests or skills. Furthermore, when they express dissatisfaction, they claim that they are punished or threatened with a misbehavior report. 

Several inmates state that the prison jobs—given the low pay and the tasks required—create a hostile environment that fosters bad behavior and hinders personal growth.

Bryant Bell, who was behind bars for almost 20 years after being wrongfully convicted, worked making swivel chairs. Now, he’s a paralegal case handler at The Legal Aid Society 

“When you invest in people, treat people like human beings and people that are looking to make a better life for themselves that will come out in society and contribute,” he said.

The Department of Corrections was not immediately available for comment.