Several Rochester City Council members are supporting a bill to allow incarcerated individuals in New York State prisons the right to refuse to work while incarcerated and to earn at least minimum wage for their work.
Rochester City Councilmember Stanley Martin, Mary Lupien, Kim Smith and Jose Peo signed a resolution calling on Governor Kathy Hochul and State Legislature to pass the “No Slavery in New York Act” and the “Fairness and Opportunity for Incarcerated Workers Act.” The two pieces of proposed legislation, sponsored by State Senator Zellnor Myrie and Assemblymember Harvey Epstein, aim to provide labor protections and fair wages to incarcerated workers.
Resolution can be read below:
The council members say the bills will also allow incarcerated individuals to become financial contributors to their families and community.
“In New York State prisons, incarcerated workers are forced to work in inhumane conditions with unfair wages, while private corporations profit from their labor. This is modern day slavery and it must be abolished,” Martin said.
New York is among a dwindling number of states who do not provide any worker protections for incarcerated individuals. Advocates want to close the “prison slavery” loophole in the 13th amendment.
“We must end slavery in the United States once and for all,” Lupien said. “No exceptions.”
The issue of prison labor in New York became of public interest in 2020 during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo upon his unveiling of his “NYS Clean” hand sanitizer program, New Yorkers were made aware of the detractive fact that the state used prison labor and were paying pennies an hour to produce the products.
And although the news was shocking for some, New York—despite its progressive reputation—have been engaging in the unpopular prison labor practices for decades. The practice is based on a loophole in the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery at the federal level but still allowed it among incarcerated individuals.
The councilmembers point out disparities with Black and Brown people in the prison system and why the Rochester area should be at the center of the debate. "Rochester is usually not thought of as a 'prison town,' but for many reasons, it should be. Geographically, Rochester is at the center of the punishment regime known as 'mass incarceration.' Within 90 minutes of the city are 35 state prisons (including the historic Auburn and Attica), federal prisons, county jails, and immigrant detention centers," the resolution reads.
"Investigations by New York Times, Amsterdam News, and Democrat & Chronicle documented sharp racial disparities in parole release determinations, with Black and Latino people far less likely to be released."
The memorializing resolution was sponsored by councilmember Martin and co-sponsored by councilmembers Lupien, Peo and Smith, and will now be forwarded to the full City Council for their consideration.
“I believe there is a direct correlation between New York’s high incarceration rates and profits from prison labor,” Smith said. “I’m proud to cosponsor this human-centered resolution abolishing the prison labor exception within the 13th amendment.”