It's March 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic is just beginning to surge. New York officials are struggling to get their hands on necessary resources to combat the virus. With test kits, masks and ventilators in short supply, the state at least didn't have to worry about hand sanitizer. Then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo proudly unveiled crate upon crate of “NYS Clean.” Only an unflattering fact wound up leading the headlines: The state used prison labor and paid pennies an hour to make it.
The news that New York utilized such labor came as a shock to many residents, but the state has long relied on that labor for a wide variety of local government needs. In fact, New York – despite its progressive reputation – remains one of an ever shrinking list of states that still technically permits slavery as a means of punishment for a crime.
Lawmakers and advocates for incarcerated people are planning to rally in Albany on Wednesday to change that. They're pushing for a constitutional amendment that would ban prison slave labor, as well as legislation that would require incarcerated people to make at least minimum wage for their work.
Although the 13th Amendment abolished slavery at the federal level, it still permitted the practice among incarcerated individuals. It's thanks to that caveat that forced prison labor began proliferating across the nation. And while an increasing number of states, including deep-red southern states, have approved changes to their constitutions ending the practice, New York has lagged behind. "I think people just assumed New York was a liberal state and that we were going to protect people's rights and interests," Assembly Member Harvey Epstein, the amendment's sponsor, told City & State. "I think we just need to line up our values with our laws.
Jesse Koklas, statewide organizer for ending mass incarceration at Citizen Action and a leader of the 13th Forward coalition, said the attention that the hand sanitizer received in 2020 went a long way toward "lifting the curtain" for the average New Yorker to begin to understand the forced labor issue. "I think that's kind of when this campaign started, I'm not sure people were talking about it before," Koklas said.
So far, eight states have passed amendments to ban forced prison labor, with New York among a handful of others to have active campaigns to do so. But the amendment alone does not solve the secondary issue of compensation. While incarcerated people could refuse work under the constitutional change, they could still receive as little as 16¢ an hour for work they do accept. It's why Epstein and his counterpart in the upper chamber, state Sen. Zellnor Myrie, have also sponsored legislation that would ensure incarcerated people receive fair wages and basic labor protections. Koklas said that getting support for the amendment is the first step. "If you agree (this) is not a New York value, let's actually change the material conditions, the slave-like conditions," she said. If the Legislature passes the amendment this year, it would need to approve it again in 2025 before it can head to voters for the final say.
The Wednesday action is the first major push to get attention for both the amendment and the accompanying legislation. Although advocates feel good about the level of support for the constitutional change, instituting new labor practices in prisons may take more convincing. "Change is difficult," Epstein said, mindful of the kind of backlash that has served as roadblocks for other bills like the Clean Slate Act that seek to improve the lives and protect the rights of people involved with the criminal justice system. But he said he had confidence that with the proper education, both pieces will see success. "Everyone knows it's wrong," Epstein said. "And I think we can get it done."