Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The 13th Amendment, Ratified To End Slavery, Actually Legalizes It For 1.5 Million Americans

Section 1 of the Thirteenth Amendment, ratified to end slavery, states: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” 

In a nation that promises "liberty and justice for all", this exception clause needs to be reexamined.

I'm certainly not saying that having inmates engage in some kind of meaningful work is a bad thing. But if incarceration is to prepare people to re-enter society and as productive citizens, we need to have what happens inside our jails and prisons represent something of the way the real world works. And in the real world people are given reasonable compensation for their labor.

A typical Virginia inmate employed in food services may work long hours in a hot kitchen and be paid .27 to .45 cents an hour. The same pay rate applies to janitorial, laundry and other inhouse employment.

Inmates working in Virginia Correctional Enterprises (VCE) programs are paid slightly more, from .55 to .80 per hour, making things like license plates, furniture, prison garb and other goods or services for state and other governmental entities.

A smaller number of inmates get to work in programs known as "correctional industries", working for private manufacturing or service enterprises that use prison labor. They are paid minimum or prevailing wages, but since their wages are garnished to pay court costs, restitution, child support, and a portion of prison housing costs, their actual take home pay may be under 20% of what they are actually earning.

Most inmates are willing to work even for a pittance, however, as a relief from the boredom of being confined and to earn money they can use for overpriced canteen items, anything from snacks (to augment much complained about prison food) to underwear and personal hygiene items. And while commissary prices keep escalating, most prison wages have not been raised for years.

Locally our two jails, Rockingham/Harrisonburg Regional Jail and Middle River Regional Jail, have contrasting policies with regard to work. 

RHRJ has no work program at all, citing security and safety concerns. MRRJ, however, has numerous inmates involved in "work crews" which provide maintenance and other services for local governmental agencies, for which they receive no pay. Other trusted inmates hold down jobs in the community and pay the Jail $15 per day for the privilege.  Much of what they earn can be withheld for outstanding medical or other charges and for payment of court costs, fines or child support. This means low income earners may have little left to show for their efforts.

What if we could agree on the following?

1. It is in everyone's best interest to provide meaningful and well supervised work opportunities for as many inmates as possible. 

2. Wages should be in line with local standards, with a reasonable amount withheld for room and board and other costs, and with some money kept in reserve for the inmate's use upon release and/or used to help support his or her family. 

3. While the jail or prison should be able to recover some of the administrative and other costs of a work program, none should profit from cheap inmate labor.

4. All earnings should be subject to social security withholding, so that upon release, inmates and their families will not be without benefits.

5. For every day in which an inmate demonstrates respectful and responsible behavior he or she should be offered some reduced time behind bars.

6. Detainees who already have jobs should be granted work release and/or be under house arrest (with or without GPS monitors) in as many cases as possible--except when they are at work or at approved classes or medical appointments. 

If our criminal justice system is to help people establish responsible work habits and be productive citizens, meaningful and reasonably compensated work needs to be a significant part of the equation.

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