More than 1,000 incarcerated firefighters across the state will also receive a pay raise. Under the new proposal, they would get a maximum daily rate of $5.80 to $10.24, about double their current daily rate of $2.90 to $5.13, with an extra $1 an hour when fighting active fire.
CDCR says these wage increases will encourage incarcerated workers to pursue jobs that support their rehabilitation and give them greater “purchasing power” for canteen cleanliness and meals. It will also provide the state with more firefighting personnel, the agency said.
“It is CDCR’s responsibility to ensure that its inmates are treated with dignity and have the resources and skills needed to transition back into society. This responsibility extends to fair compensation for work performed while incarcerated,” CDCR said in its announcement of the regulatory changes.
The extra compensation also helps workers meet restitution requirements for crime victims and save more money after their release, Tessa Outhyse, a CDCR spokeswoman, said in an email to KQED.
The proposed regulations would further eliminate all unpaid work assignments, Outhyse added, although they would also reduce most full-time work assignments to half-time.
“CDCR values the contributions of incarcerated workers and is committed to its mission of preparing people in its custody to successfully return to their communities,” Outhyse said.
But some living wage advocates criticized CDCR’s proposed salary increase, calling it insufficient.
Members of the California Living Wage For All Coalition are questioning how incarcerated people can earn more money, even with variable wages, if their total hours are cut. They also argue that subminimum wages contribute to recidivism, as prisoners are often released into dire poverty.
“It’s embarrassing,” said Cox, who now works as a policy and organizing associate at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, an Oakland-based nonprofit. “Continuing the practice of exploiting individuals is deplorable. An increase to 16 cents I still can’t do anything about it.”
California’s wage schedule for incarcerated workers has remained unchanged for the past 30 years. Hourly wages in the state are below the national average, which was 39 cents in 2017, according to the CDCR.
Advocates argue that the state has the ability to pay incarcerated workers higher wages. They pointed to the California Prison Industry Authority’s Joint Venture Program, which offers incarcerated workers the same wages as those outside prison. The program boasts a 9% recidivism rate, significantly lower than CDCR’s general population, although only 13 inmate workers currently participate in it.
The Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for crime. California law contains a similar exemption, which allows CDCR to force inmates to work regardless of pay.
Voters in several states, including Oregon and Alabama, recently approved measures removing involuntary servitude from their constitutions. However, a proposed amendment to California’s constitution banning all forms of involuntary servitude died in the state legislature last year.
In addition, a bill that would have required CDCR to adopt a five-year plan to raise wages for incarcerated workers was vetoed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last year because of its financial impact, estimated at more than $400 million per year.
Newsom argued that with lower-than-expected revenues, the state should prioritize existing obligations and priorities, such as education and health care.