Every worker should be paid a fair wage for their labor, including people who are incarcerated. Yet the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which designated slavery and involuntary servitude as unconstitutional, contains a single exception: when it is used as punishment for a crime. After the abolishment of slavery, the criminal legal system was one of the many means of maintaining the legalized involuntary servitude of Black people. States used discriminatory laws, like those against vagrancy and loitering, to arrest and imprison Black people. Once incarcerated, they were then subject to a system of “convict leasing” to private individuals and corporations, laboring in dangerous conditions. This legacy is still imprinted on our criminal legal system today. On July 1, 2022, Connecticut’s minimum wage rose to $13 per hour. But people who are working while they are incarcerated in Connecticut can expect to earn between $0.30 to $1.50 per hour. One study of prison wages found that incarcerated people earn less today than they earned in 2001. In 2023, Connecticut's legislature is considering H.B. 5033, a bill that would begin to raise the wage for incarcerated workers.
On February 23, 2023, ACLU of Connecticut Smart Justice leader Manuel Sandoval testified in support of the bill during its public hearing in the Labor and Public Employees Committee. The following is his testimony:
Hello Senator Kushner, Representative Sanchez, Ranking Members Senator Sampson and Representative Ackert, and distinguished members of the Labor Committee:
My name is Manuel Sandoval. I’m a resident of New Britain and a leader with the ACLU of Connecticut Smart Justice campaign. I’m here to testify in support of House Bill 5033, An Act Concerning the Compensation of Incarcerated Individuals. Due to my mistakes, I was incarcerated in the state of CT’s DOC. Having struggled to make ends meet to begin with, and not wanting my family to worry about me, I chose to work for the DOC at a whopping $1.25 day. Every day two weeks I was paid $17.50 into my inmate account. That was a whole hell of a lot of money, eh?
I understand everyone loving a good deal. Hell, I love a good deal myself. However, let’s call it what it is. SLAVERY. Our government has continued the atrocious labor practices that our forefathers began centuries ago. They chose to perpetuate slavery by using its incarcerated individuals as its currency. Yes, we are Slaves, you heard it correctly. The criminal legal system has disproportionately incarcerated black and brown communities, communities that have already been alienated, disengaged and oppressed. The ones that for decades have dealt with redlining, predatory lending practices, homelessness, and family disassembling. For centuries those in power have wanted nothing more than to enrich themselves, and too often using the black and brown population as its stepping stone in the process.
Using the 13th amendment our country has managed to circumvent the antislavery laws and was able to continue the practice of owning slaves. This includes Connecticut. People who are incarcerated in Connecticut are janitors, librarians, GED tutors, cooks, carpenters, HVAC technicians, landscapers, but can expect to only earn between $.30 to $1.50 an hour. At the same time, the costs of fees and the prices of items available to incarcerated people to buy, often through commissary, is extremely high. If anything, prices for items on commissary are even higher than what you would find on a grocery store shelf. For something that costs $14, which would cost a minimum wage worker one hour of their pay, that same item would cost an incarcerated worker two week of pay.
To compound this problem even more, Connecticut also charges people hundreds of dollars per day for each day they are incarcerated because the state is legally permitted to take money from people’s inheritances and lawsuits, even if they were harmed in prison by the state. And once again, this disproportionately falls on black and brown people. I realize that that issue is not before this committee, but it adds to the economic challenges that formerly incarcerated people face and inhibits our opportunities to be successful.
I’ve been blessed that since my release I was able to find employment. I was able to make the necessary changes needed to be the best version of myself that I could be. However, not everyone has these opportunities. That is why this bill needs to pass. Providing someone an opportunity to earn and save is an opportunity at gaining a sense of dignity. Thanks to last year’s Hb 5248, which began in this committee, I became a Licensed Clinical Social Worker at a Community Mental Health Organization. Yet our governments insistence on creating barriers instead of opportunities that has me side lined again. Taxation without Representation at its finest. I am unemployed and will not be allowed to practice unless the government removes me from an exclusionary list. How awesome is that. But I better not miss a student loan payment
House Bill 5033 is a first step in improving labor conditions and wages in Connecticut’s prison system. However, this legislature should go further and increases prison wages to minimum wage while ensuring that work done while people are incarcerated teaches skills that will prepare them for jobs on the outside. Be the change people and ensure our previously incarcerated population receives the needed support upon their release by being able to care for themselves even if they are alone in the end. This is why I support House Bill 5033, and urge this Committee to do the same.
Thank you for your time and listening to my testimony.