Incarcerated folks would earn minimal wage underneath new proposal

Many people incarcerated in Washington state have a job inside prison. They work in kitchens and laundry facilities and do custodial work, among other things. The most they can be paid is $2.70 an hour. Now, there’s a proposal in the state Legislature to pay incarcerated workers the state minimum wage, $15.74 an hour.

Democrat State Rep. Tarra Simmons of Bremerton is sponsoring the bill. She’s also the first-ever formerly incarcerated person to be elected to the state Legislature. KUOW’s Kim Malcolm asked her why she is advocating for this change.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Tarra Simmons: I think it’s really important, both for moral reasons and knowing that this practice is part of the slavery loophole, but also to set people up for success upon reentry, so they can save money for housing and transportation when they come home. Also, while they’re currently incarcerated, they can still pay their child support and their victim restitution. I think this will set people up for success, reduce recidivism, and increase public safety.

Kim Malcolm: You mentioned the slavery loophole. Explain that for people in this context.

The 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except for punishment for a crime. I experienced it myself. I was forced to work for 42 cents an hour while I was incarcerated. I had a variety of jobs. I worked in the laundry, in custodial, and in the kitchen. Some people even manufacture our license plates or build our furniture for our state agencies. If you refuse to work, you are threatened with a major infraction, which means you can go to solitary confinement, lose visitation with your children, or even lose “good time.”

There are things you have to pay for in prison, right?

Yes, absolutely. You have to buy tampons, for example, Q tips, and toothpaste. And if you want any coffee, or anything else, you have to pay for that as well. You also have to pay for medical care. You have to pay a copay for that. We even charge people for the cost of incarceration. There are a lot of costs associated with being incarcerated, but no way to actually make money.

If you had earned Washington’s minimum wage back when you were incarcerated, how would that have changed things for you?

It really would have changed things for my children. My children were living in poverty while I was incarcerated as I wasn’t able to help them at all. It also would have helped me when I got out of prison. I ended up working for a minimum wage job, and the courts were garnishing my minimum wage in order to pay off my legal financial obligations. Had I been working while I was incarcerated, and able to pay that debt off, I would have had money for housing when I was released. Instead, I went homeless while I was studying for the law school admission test. I think this policy would have really helped me in several ways, and it would have helped my children as well.

There are always going to be opponents to measures that try to boost benefits for people who are incarcerated. What would be your message to people who just don’t agree with what they’re hearing here?

I would say, if we want to make sure that people don’t go back to prison, we need to give them a hand up. We need to help people get into programming and counseling and substance use disorder treatment while they’re incarcerated, and also leave incarceration with the ability to not re-offend, but the ability to take care of themselves. This is really about increasing community safety and making sure that when they leave prison, people have money for housing and transportation. Currently, people are leaving with $40 and a bus ticket, oftentimes.

I would also say to my colleagues that may not agree with me that they also don’t agree with giving handouts. They don’t want to give people housing vouchers, pay for their rent when they come home, or have them be a strain on our social safety net. This is a way to help them earn their second chance and earn money so they can be successful upon reentry.

I would also add that we do want to make victims whole, so this bill increases the amount of money that will be going to restitution to victims. It increases the amount of money that goes to victim restitution and child support and mandates that 50% goes into a savings account that will be available upon re-entry.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.

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