Forced Prison Labor in New York State: Modern Slavery

Photo Courtesy of 13thForward

“Except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

This is the exception in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which has permitted the continuation of forced labor in prisons, an institutionalized system in New York in which incarcerated persons work for 10 to 65 cents an hour under threat of punishment. The New York State Constitution only stipulates that forced prison labor be contracted to state institutions alone and no profit be made for private groups. This is legal slavery in New York State and it continues to thrive, up to this very day.

According to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, there are currently over 31,000 incarcerated persons in the prison system. These individuals are forced to work for an average of 33 cents an hour and have not seen a pay increase since 1993. Prisons can deduct, or “garnish” from paychecks for fines and fees, making ultimate income even smaller. Incarcerated persons assigned to work in hazardous conditions are regularly not supplied with necessary personal protective equipment despite OSHA standards being required by law.

During the pandemic, incarcerated workers played an integral role in New York’s response plan. Former Governor Andrew Cuomo contracted the Division of Correctional Industries, better known as Corcraft, to produce 100,000 gallons of NYS Clean hand sanitizer daily, which were distributed to government agencies and schools throughout the state. Cuomo pitched it as a low-cost solution to the pressing crisis. Incarcerated workers were not allowed to use the sanitizer themselves due to its alcohol content. Forced physical proximity combined with further lack of proper PPE lead prisons to become hotbeds for COVID-19 outbreaks.

During the initial outbreak, incarcerated workers built 1400 coffins per week. Those tasked with digging mass graves were given a wage boost to six dollars and offered PPE as a “privilege.”

Corcraft operates within the NYS Department of Corrections and Community Supervision and touts their mission to prepare incarcerated individuals for release through “skill development, work ethic, respect and responsibility,” according to their website. They manufacture products in 13 correctional facilities, including three in Ulster County, and are fully staffed by incarcerated workers. Corcraft sells a range of products at slightly under market price, including license plates, surgical masks and furniture. They are the preferred source for government-run institutions, including the governor’s office and SUNY.

Incarcerated workers can receive disciplinary tickets for refusing to work. These translate to punishments such as solitary confinement and reduced chances of winning parole. Judgment is largely left to the discretion of corrections officers.

Incarcerated workers have also reported corrections officers demanding sexual favors in exchange for better job assignments or in threat of punishment. One formerly incarcerated woman told 13th Forward that she was denied her preferred work assignments for refusing to submit. “For a lot of the jobs that I tried to get, they wouldn’t let me, just because I wouldn’t do what they wanted me to do for them,” she said. This has been corroborated by multiple accounts.

13th Forward is a grassroots campaign working to end the exploitation of incarcerated persons in the NYS prison labor system. Formed in 2019, they have been working with State Senator Zellnor Myrie and Assembly Member Harvey Epstein to get two bills passed: The No Slavery in NY Act and The Fairness and Opportunity for Incarcerated Workers Act. They are led by a steering committee comprised of Citizen Action of New York, Color of Change, The Legal Aid Society, the New York Civil Liberties Union, A Little Piece of Light and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice.

The No Slavery in NY Act would amend the state constitution to outlaw forced labor in prisons by granting incarcerated persons the right to refuse to work. It passed in the Senate during the last session with bipartisan support but did not receive a vote in the Assembly. Sarahana Shrestha, assembly member from District 103, which includes New Paltz and much of Ulster County, is a co-sponsor on the bill. As a constitutional amendment, it must clear the state legislature in two consecutive years and then be voted on ballots state-wide. This mirrors movements in Alabama, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont which all voted to amend their constitutions in 2022. The Fairness and Opportunity for Incarcerated Workers Act looks to create a board to regulate prison labor but currently has not passed either chamber.

In 2022, Governor Hochul announced her “Jails to Jobs” initiative which seeks to implement various criminal justice reforms including the Clean Slate Act, which would reduce the burden of a prison record on employment. The plan would also enable private-sector, in-prison work that would aim to provide more competitive wages. Members of 13th Forward have come out against this plan stating that private prison labor would expand exploitation and reduce minimum wage competition available outside of prisons.

Jesse Koklas, statewide organizer for ending mass incarceration with Citizen Action, facilitated a teach-in and discussion on Nov. 2 at SUNY New Paltz to educate about this issue. She was joined by Donna Hylton and Audrey Johnson, the President/CEO and Housing Manager of A Little Piece of Light, respectively. Citizen Action contributes legislative and advocacy expertise to 13th Forward, acting as the base building organization. A Little Piece of Light works to empower women, girls and gender-fluid individuals directly impacted by trauma associated with the criminal justice system.

Koklas feels very positive about the momentum going into the next legislative session in January. The teach-in is part of a greater push to get SUNY students involved in the campaign. “Students are really the people with the most power in the SUNY system,” Koklas said. The end of the teach-in was dedicated to brainstorming strategies that could be used to further the anti-forced prison labor initiative amongst SUNY students. “I think if we can get a number of university presidents to come out against Corcraft, it would shed a lot of light on the situation statewide and it would be a strong signal for new state legislators that they need to act.”