Inmate Pay Scale Raises…None in 40 Years

David McNew / AFP/Getty Images

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By John L. Orr

If you spent over 40 long years at the same tedious job, and retired with a final paycheck equal to the first one you received, how would you feel about yourself?

CDCR inmates with pay numbers have existed in the financial fantasyland since before the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Summer Games. Inmate wages have stagnated for over four decades and actually decreased in 1991, never to return to original levels.

Inmate research at Centinela State prison in 2014 attempted determination of the last hike in prisoner pay scales with no confirmation through prison-and state-level sources. Nobody knew.

The 2014 research came as a result of a series of canteen price increases showing an average gain of over 49% on just 15 items over 10 years. With a broader comparison of a 20-year span, a 2022 examination showed the average canteen item increase averaged 79% and no pay elevation—yet.

California Senate Resolution 69 calls for “…a livable wage for the over 40,000 incarcerated prisoners, who can earn as little as eight cents an hour…”

Esteban Nuñez, a state policy director further declared, “Incarceration does not justify inhumane compensation….”

An amendment to the California Constitution (ACA-3) is proposed for the November 2022 ballot, seeking to end the “plantation-like unpaid, forced labor…” in California prisons. This from former state prisoner Samual Brown, BA from USC, in a 5/30/22 ABC News interview.

This amendment does not directly address elevating prisoner pay but provides for “livable wages” for all inmates employed in the CDCR.

A simple fact of inmate life: almost 100% of an inmate’s account balance is spent on canteen purchases. A raise in wages, and actually compensating unpaid laborers, increases purchasing power and canteen(prison) profits equal to the raise.

Indirect benefits from an election of inmate pay scales:

  • Increased inmate payments to the victim/restitution fund and PLRA payments (50% of prisoner pay is withheld routinely-higher washes=increased payments)
  • Increased inmate pay allows more participation in quarterly charitable, outside vendor sales, thus, more charitable contributions to local benefactories and positive publication for the institutions

The concept of the “R” in CDCR—Rehabilitation—should include real-world practices. No “outside” business would survive without adequate compensation to its employees and cost-of-living raises. Inmates should be treated in prisons as they would expect outside.

While prisons are isolated economies, inmate purchasing power benefits prison programs as well as local, outside business. Canteen profits power the Inmate Welfare fund, actually financing and, in essence, reimbursing the State. A substantial increase in Inmate Pay Scale levels makes sense.

John L. Orr is incarcerated in California

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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