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Courtney: A look into the issue of underpaid prison labor

Prison inmates are humans too.
Image by Ava Weinreis

I’ll start this column with a personal note. I’m nearing completion of my master’s degree and initial licensure in 5-12 social studies education, and I’m currently student teaching in a ninth-grade civics and government classroom.

I’m preparing for our upcoming unit about the U.S. Constitution, which will include some discussion about the Bill of Rights and the following amendments to our Constitution. Like all teachers, I’m thinking back to my own schooling experience: how did I learn this information? What was missing? What should I include? What shouldn’t I?

If I were to make a generalization, it would be this: social studies classes, concepts and topics often aren’t given the nuance they deserve. The Constitution and its amendments are no exception. The First Amendment gives us freedom of speech, religion, protest, assembly and press. The Second Amendment gives us the right to bear arms. The 13th Amendment is commonly thought to have abolished slavery.

My first two examples certainly deserve more nuance, but my third example – about the 13th Amendment – simply isn’t true. The 13th Amendment didn’t abolish slavery.

The 13th Amendment reads, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

The phrase in between the first and second comma – “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted” – is the phrase I’m writing about. We (mostly) abolished slavery, but we didn’t abolish slavery for those who are convicted of a crime. Prisoners still work for barely any compensation, right here in public prisons in Minnesota.

I had a chance to speak about this issue with Filiberto Nolasco Gomez, a reporter who has written extensively about prison labor in Minnesota. He started by explaining there are many ways other than amending the Constitution to help humanize prison labor. We could start by recognizing inmates as workers.

“Because of court cases, inmates are not considered workers. Therefore, they have no workplace rights,” Gomez said.

A 1994 Minnesota District Court case, McMaster v. Minnesota, is what Gomez is referring to here. Essentially, they found there is a difference between incarcerated workers and every other worker and that incarcerated workers are not entitled to labor protections.

The University of Cincinnati Law Review discussed this same issue, saying we should update the federal Fair Labor Standards Act to include incarcerated workers in their definition of an employee.

How we define incarcerated workers is a big issue. Since they aren’t afforded the same workplace rights as everyone else, they can’t unionize for better pay, can’t take a day off, have no guarantees of sick pay, etc. It’s as simple as this: we don’t do enough to recognize the basic humanity of the incarcerated.

“If you don’t have a legal right to both work and have civil rights, you’re really not human,” Gomez said.

Not only is the current status of prison labor in Minnesota problematic and morally tragic, but it’s also systemically racist. Because we disproportionately incarcerate people of color, especially Black men, we also disproportionately subject them to prison labor conditions.

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that journalism also lacks in racial and ethnic diversity, so they often also turn a blind eye to this pertinent issue. Without a press that regularly investigates these issues, the public is unlikely to know or care about inhumane prison labor pay and conditions.

According to a Minnesota statute, the Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) Paul Schnell is given the authority to pay incarcerated workers whatever wage he “deems proper.” Currently, the DOC pays incarcerated workers on a scale from 25 cents to $2 per hour.

In an effort to simply recognize the humanity of incarcerated workers, Schnell and Gov. Tim Walz should raise the minimum wage of incarcerated workers to $10.59 per hour – the same as it is for large employers. If they respond they don’t have the money to do that, then we should reduce our prison population any way we can or call on the unified, DFL-led legislature to provide the necessary funding.

We recognize far too rarely that prison inmates are humans too. They are people who deserve to live with dignity. We can and should do better for them and this all starts with amending our Constitution to truly abolish slavery, recognizing incarcerated workers as employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act and simply paying them more under the authority granted to Schnell and Walz.

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  • Dover135
    Feb 20, 2023 at 9:17 am

    Is this a serious opinion piece? Just here to Echo Meat Eater’s comment below that all money should go to restitution or paying for their “stay”. *I don’t disagree that we should find a way reduce prison population (like paroling non-violent crimes). Regardless, this is a dumb article and not going to ever happen.

  • Meat Eater
    Feb 19, 2023 at 6:02 pm

    yes, raise the wage of prison labor, and then turn all the money over to their victims. Any money leftover to be spent towards their room and board. When you violate the mores of a culture, you lose rights common to that culture. Slaves had no choice in their bondage, thieves, murderers, rapists, etc. had a choice, observe the rights of their fellow citizens, … or suffer the consequences.

  • hodel014
    Feb 16, 2023 at 6:16 pm

    Z.Courtney has such a way with words.