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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Monday, May 29, 2023

Incarcerated workers make just a fraction of minimum wage, and that probably won't change anytime soon

Nobody likes idleness.

At least not for prolonged periods of time, and especially not if you have to spend that time in a state prison. 

When alarms were raised on social media and petition sites in December about state and UW System contracts with the Wisconsin Department of Corrections manufacturing arm Badger State Industries, activists wanted contracts to be severed completely

However, that might not be possible under current financial and political circumstances — and not only that, many inmates probably wouldn’t want those programs to end either.

“In my experience, most folks actually prefer to work while they’re incarcerated, or are at least indifferent to the idea,” UW-Madison Clinical Professor Adam Stevenson said. “There are really only four things to do in prison: education, treatment, recreation and work. People want to work for a schedule, so they don’t have to just sit around all day.”

Stevenson is also the Director of the Remington Center at UW-Madison, which provides law students opportunities to participate in clinical trials before graduation. Students spend summers working full-time in district attorney or public defender offices throughout the state to assist with various civil and criminal law issues.

He says that most prisoners, in his experience, do not morally object to working while incarcerated, but that most inmates take issue with their pay — or lack thereof. 

Both the state government and the UW System currently have contracts with Badger State Industries (BSI), which is the manufacturing arm of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections Bureau of Correctional Enterprises (BCE). 

The BCE is the current version of the state’s prison industries program, established in 1913, that gives inmates an opportunity to work outside of their prison on more “skilled” jobs. 

The program is seen as a rehabilitation effort by state law to train and teach inmates valuable skills they can take with them after their sentence is over.

John Beard, a spokesperson for the Wisconsin DOC, said jobs in the industry program currently start at 97 cents per hour, while jobs in the Agriculture or Logistics branches start at $1.22 per hour.

But jobs in BCE are much higher paying compared to most other jobs in state prisons, which can offer just 9 to 42 cents per hour. Most low-paying jobs consist of more day-to-day work inside a prison, while inmates in the BCE program are allowed to leave the facility to go to work. 

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BCE jobs are coveted among inmates for those reasons, but spots in the program are scarce. According to Beard, BCE averaged just 440 workers per day, compared to the 19,00 inmates in state prisons.

“When [the state prison industry system] started it probably worked better than it does now,” Stevenson said. “Institutions are either at or well above capacity, which means many individuals can't get those skilled jobs.”

Before inmates can even apply for a BCE job, the person must earn their high school diploma or equivalency degree, and must also go a year without a major rules violation and remain free of major violations to keep BCE jobs.

Struggle to pay

Even at $1.22 per hour, most inmates cannot afford items at the prison convenience store to help make the time more bearable.

“There is often a disparity between what inmates are being charged for products, and the payments they receive,” Stevenson said. “They are still being charged full price for anything you would buy at a 7/11 like you or me, but the pay they receive is significantly lower.”

Not only are inmates on the hook for full price products, but they can also have money taken out of paychecks for things like child support payments or court fees, which can reduce their final pay even further.

“Folks understand that they have obligations they have to pay outside of prison, and usually aren’t too upset when amounts are taken out,” Stevenson said. “But then the burden falls on families from outside to send money to incarcerated people, which can strain families with already limited means.”

However, because the state see’s BCE and other jobs for inmates as rehabilitation, and the fact that BCE constantly runs at a deficit, attaining higher pay for inmates may not be possible in the near future. 

In 2019, BCE made $29.8 million in total sales, and paid out $780,000 to incarcerated workers. BSI made nearly $19 million in revenue, $487,850 paid out to inmates’ manufacturing furniture and office wares. However, despite the high revenue, BCE overall took a $1,039,265 loss in 2019, which Beard attributes to the cost of materials, equipment and supplies.

The BCE program takes losses almost every year, which doesn’t afford BCE with much flexibility in pay. That means the DOC would need a large cash injection to pay inmates minimum wage, and the appetite for increasing funding for the prison system in Wisconsin is not very high.

Even if BCE were to suddenly turn a profit in the next year, Beard says the extra funds would go to increasing the number of inmates working with BCE, instead of increasing the pay.

“The higher sales, the more people BCE can employ and help train and teach for greater success in Wisconsin communities,” Beard said.

A fight for states

Stevenson said that because of the huge stimulus prisons would need to receive to pay inmates even minimum wage, the federal government and states with large prison populations are unlikely to step in. In that case, he says the burden to raise inmates' pay will fall to individual states, where smaller populations may be more likely to vote through a resolution.

“In the tough times the pandemic has created, it's hard to believe that there would be significant political interest to draw that up in the federal legislature,” he said. “If I had to guess, nothing will happen in the short term, at least for 5-10 years. But would I be shocked if smaller states started to take a look at the issue? No.”

A number of organizations already exist in Wisconsin that fight for inmates rights, who may pick up the issue of prison wages as the nation’s various prison industry programs face increased scrutiny.

“There are a number of things that I would have never expected to see changed in my life that are happening,” Stevenson said. “So anything is possible on a state level, a smaller population might be willing to take a look at it.”

Correction: This story has been updated to accurately reflect the number of inmates in Wisconsin prison's as it was updated this week.

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