Legal slavery exists today on American soil because of a loophole in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery in most, but not all, cases. It remains legal “as a punishment for crime.” As a formerly incarcerated individual and one of the many leaders of the #Fixthe13thNY campaign, we are working hard to abolish slavery and improve wages and working conditions and training opportunities for the incarcerated in New York State. And our new polling shows New Yorkers agree. (More about our campaign and my personal experience is here.)
We are working hard to abolish slavery and improve wages and working conditions and training opportunities for the incarcerated in New York State.
Even after the 13th Amendment reformed enslavement, racially discriminatory measures like the post-Reconstruction Black Codes and Jim Crow laws, along with state-sanctioned labor practices like convict leasing, continued to force many Black Americans into involuntary labor for decades. In 2016, 560,000 detainees worldwide were victims of forced labor to the benefit of private individuals or organizations, according to anti-slavery group Alliance 8.7.
Today, half a century after the civil rights movement took the country by storm, the United States suffers from a mass incarceration boom that has left 1.8 million Americans incarcerated and another 4.5 million people under some form of parole and/or probation. Of those who are incarcerated in New York, 53 percent are Black and 22 percent are Latina/o.
Incarcerated New Yorkers earn approximately 65 cents an hour, with some earning as little as 16 cents an hour, despite making significant contributions to the state economy. Detainees helped bottle hand sanitizer for the pandemic response; they staff DMV call centers; and they make furniture and signs that New Yorkers see in City Hall, on the sidewalk, and in the subway system, among other work. Yet incarcerated New Yorkers do not receive paid sick leave, mandatory overtime for unsalaried employees, OSHA protections, or unionization rights.
An Overwhelming Majority of New York Voters Want to Improve Prison Working Conditions and End Legal Slavery
A new poll of 622 likely voters in New York from Data for Progress, Next100, and #FixThe13thNY finds that New Yorkers want to improve working conditions for the incarcerated, raise prison wages, and end the practice of legal slavery in the state.
Among all likely voters in New York, 76 percent want to expand the number of vocational and career training opportunities for those who are in prison, a net margin of +58 points. The support extends across parties, with Democrats (84 percent), Independents (79 percent), and Republicans (59 percent) all wanting to expand vocational and training opportunities. Moreover, 89 percent of Black New Yorkers support the proposal.
Everyone, including the incarcerated community, deserves to have access to learning and ways to build on their preferred skills.
Currently, the majority of job roles in prisons involve keeping the facility running, such as washing dishes, doing laundry, and delivering mail—in other words, jobs that don’t fully build skills that incarcerated people can transfer to the outside workforce. Most of the skill-based programs are only available to detainees who are near their release. Everyone, including the incarcerated community, deserves to have access to learning and ways to build on their preferred skills.
A majority of New York voters support raising the minimum wage in state prisons to $3 an hour, for a net favorability of +21 points. Overall, 56 percent of voters and 71 percent of Democrats support the proposal, with Black (76 percent) and Latina/o (68 percent) New Yorkers also supporting it by wide margins.
Roughly two in three New York voters (66 percent) support legislation to establish a board to oversee prison labor in New York state prisons, for a net margin of +41 points. The board would ensure people in prisons have safe working conditions, enforce fair wages for labor, and end the practice of forced prison labor. Among Democrats in New York, 80 percent support establishing a prison labor board, along with 81 percent of Black New Yorkers and 68 percent of Latina/o New Yorkers.
Lastly, we tested arguments for raising the prison minimum wage and ending forced labor against common opposition arguments, such as the argument that the state has a right to make detainees work because of the choices they made that led them to prison. After hearing arguments from both sides, New Yorkers continue to overwhelmingly support raising the prison minimum wage and ending forced labor.
Overall, 59 percent of New Yorkers support raising the minimum wage and ending forced labor in state prisons, even after hearing opposing arguments (a net margin of +27 points). This includes 75 percent of Democrats, 76 percent of Black New Yorkers, and 68 percent of Latina/o New Yorkers.
The Path Forward
The members, supporters, and partners of the #FixThe13thNY campaign know that legal slavery has to end. It’s time for New York to join the movement to end legal slavery in America, alongside states like Utah and Colorado. But ending slavery is not enough. We need to keep fighting for acceptable conditions in prisons, one which includes a meaningful minimum wage, labor protections, better training opportunities, and protection from abuses.
We need to keep fighting for acceptable conditions in prisons, one which includes a meaningful minimum wage, labor protections, better training opportunities, and protection from abuses.
A good start would be for New York State to raise wages for the incarcerated to a fair minimum wage. People who are incarcerated shouldn’t be forced into involuntary training, or into training that will not create good job prospects when they leave. Currently, the recidivism rate in New York is 43 percent. To lower it, we have to ensure that incarcerated individuals have access to quality, meaningful training opportunities, and that they have the autonomy to choose these opportunities as they see fit. Working conditions must also be improved, including allowing incarcerated individuals to unionize and setting maximum hours at forty hours per week.
For more information or to join the campaign to end legal slavery in New York, visit: https://thenext100.org/project/fixthe13thny/.