Best of 2018: An inmate's guide to earning 24 cents an hour

I was in the top earning bracket in prison. According to the state, I’m worth a few large cups of coffee per month

Published December 24, 2018 5:00PM (EST)

Inmates work on staining cabinet doors at the Habitat for Humanity Prison Build at the Ionia Correctional Facility in Ionia, Mich. (AP/Carlos Osorio)
Inmates work on staining cabinet doors at the Habitat for Humanity Prison Build at the Ionia Correctional Facility in Ionia, Mich. (AP/Carlos Osorio)

This life story was originally published on Salon on August 31, 2018.

When I first heard about the incarcerated workers strike last week, I went to my closet and dug out some old paperwork. I still have my payroll receipts from Livingston Correctional Facility, a medium-security state prison where I served time for a nonviolent crime. When I was released from there in 2015, I left almost everything behind. I gave away my plastic bowl and my blanket, a couple cans of black beans. But I took my payroll receipts with me. They serve as a reminder of what New York State thinks I’m worth.

* * *

I sit on my bunk, waiting for movement to be called so I can head to work, and read my inmate account statement that arrived in yesterday’s facility mail. It lists the deposit amounts for last month — the weekly earnings from my job as a janitor. I know it will only make me angry and depressed to look, but I do anyway.

July 10th: $1.80

July 17th: $2.20

July 24th: $3.50

July 31st: $3.50

It’s strange how deeply mere numbers can cut. I did my best to hold my head up when the state took away my name and replaced it with six numbers and a letter. I often stare at the dates on the calendar and tell myself I can make it to the end of each month. But the paltry amounts trickling into my commissary account settle on my shoulders in a way I can’t shake off. Of all the ways prison seeks to diminish my self-respect — strip searches, supervised urine tests — this is the one that sticks.

Inmate pay in New York State is often allocated on a grade system, determined by job title and level of education. At Livingston, anyone who doesn’t have the equivalent of a high school diploma can’t earn higher than Grade 2 pay, which tops out at slightly under 18 cents an hour. An inmate who’s enrolled in a high school equivalency course is eligible for Grade 3, which is just under 22 cents an hour.

But if, like me, an inmate has earned a high school diploma or its equivalent, they’re eligible for the Holy Grail: Grade 4 pay, the highest in the prison. That’s 24 cents an hour, 4 whole cents over the national inmate average. In this facility that’s as good as it gets, and probably as good as it’s ever going to get. New York’s inmates haven’t received a pay raise since 1993.

In the free world, I took great pride in my jobs, even though most of them were low-level restaurant positions. Back then, my work had value. Now a month of my life, of my labor, adds up to $11. At that rate, I could live another 60 years and the sum of my existence wouldn’t be worth $8,000. On the worst days, I wonder: If someone were to offer me $8,000 right now, in exchange for ownership of me for the rest of my life, who would be getting the better deal? It’s a question I would’ve scoffed at years ago. Now I’m not so sure.

The vast majority of Americans believe that slavery has been completely abolished. That’s almost correct. In reality, the Thirteenth Amendment stipulates that slavery is still allowed in this country “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

In other words: Slavery is illegal, but with one notable exception. Inmates are that exception. Given that most incarcerated individuals are people of color, use of prison slave labor is arguably the most regressive practice in America. As a white man, I can’t begin to imagine the generational trauma it evokes in many of the men around me.

Inmates are considered property, no less so than slaves. This is one of the reasons why incarcerated men and women are considered legally incapable of consenting to sex. It’s also one of the reasons self-harm is a punishable offense here. For an inmate to hurt themselves is to damage state property, and damaging state property is against prison rules — an act of sabotage or vandalism.

In light of this slave mentality — in which human beings are owned and possessed, by institutions instead of individuals — it’s surprising that most states pay inmates anything at all. A few, such as Texas, don’t even bother. On the West Coast, those deemed too dangerous to live in the free world are called upon to protect it instead; California inmates fight wildfires (and a creeping sense of irony, no doubt) for a dollar an hour. Incarcerated men and women have died in this line of work.

The dorm officer calls for movement. I throw my account sheet into my property locker and hurry outside. The thick upstate humidity presses down on me as I head to the activities building. I work most weekdays, provided there aren’t any lockdowns or other interruptions to the daily routine, but even a full workweek here doesn’t approach full-time hours in the free world. My sweat soaks through the cheap fabric of my state-issue uniform as I walk — a uniform made by other poorly-paid inmates, at another prison not far from here.

When I arrive at the activities building, I check in with a correctional officer and set about my work. I empty the trashcans in the library, tidy up the classrooms and then prepare to mop the linoleum floors. I set out yellow “Caution: Wet Floor” signs as I wait for the water in the slop sink to turn warm. The facility certainly wouldn’t want anyone to slip and get hurt. It’s much harder to exploit an inmate who’s too injured to work.

There’s a part in the novel "The Brothers K" where a character is describing prison in a letter to his brother. “Prisoners do the laundry, the cooking, maintain the buildings, fix the roads — we’re nearly self-sufficient,” he writes. “If, as I keep suggesting, they’d just fire the warden and guards and put us on the honor system we could even be cost-efficient.”

That’s true. If you set aside the task of confining other human beings, it’s the residents of these facilities who do virtually every job in the prison ecosystem. The fruits of their labor reach into the wider world in ways few people know anything about, benefiting companies such as Starbucks and Whole Foods. Every New York State license plate on the road was made by inmates at Auburn, a maximum-security facility, the first prison in which I was ever confined.

I push the mop listlessly across the scuffed linoleum of the activities building until the end of my shift, then trudge back to my dorm. It’s an airplane hangar of a room that houses sixty inmates, each in his own tiny cube, the pattern always reminding me of a honeycomb. For now it’s my home, my hive, buzzing with the angry energy of men who would rather be anywhere else.

In my cube, I pull out a book from the library and wait for chow run. This is the moment when the entire dorm will speed-walk down to the mess hall for dinner. How well a man eats in prison is the ultimate litmus test of his financial situation. The problem with mess hall food isn’t so much that it tastes bad; more than anything, it’s just bland. The real issue is that there isn’t enough of it. When a nurse weighed me at medical the other day, I discovered that I’ve lost 20 pounds since arriving in prison almost two years ago. At 25 years old and six feet tall, I’m down to 155.

I’m among the lucky ones, my involuntary diet notwithstanding. I make almost $4 a week when working full hours and receive occasional food packages from loved ones back home. While most guys spend the bulk of their money on instant coffee and tobacco, I’m ruthless with myself about only buying things from commissary that help keep me alive: food, multivitamins, stamps so I can write to my family. Coffee would be great but water is free, so water it is. A couple hours of work can buy me a ramen soup instead, which is filling enough to get me through the night until breakfast.

By following my rule and clinging to the generosity of family, I’m able to supplement the meager meals served at chow. I’ve never had to lie down on my two-inch mattress pad (manufactured by inmates at Eastern Correctional Facility) and try to fall asleep with hunger pangs pulsing in my stomach. Some of the men around me can’t say the same.

Country is one of them. He doesn’t have any help from home or a GED to boost his pay. He’s painfully skinny, a soft-spoken guy who’s barely out of his teens. His teeth are turning gray. Prison-issue toothpaste is so ineffective that most guys only use it as glue to put up pictures in their cubes. Country is forced to choose between buying a couple precious ramens with his commissary money or saving up weeks of pay to buy a tube of Crest. He makes the obvious choice.

On the rare occasions when he speaks, Country tells me about the dream mobile home he wants to buy for his girlfriend and him to live in, one with enough room for all her cats and the kids they’ll have. In order to keep himself somewhat well-fed, he’s taken on a servant role around the dorm. He does other men’s laundry and washes out their bowls in exchange for a share of meals cooked up in the dayroom microwave. Some guys mock him, but he pretends not to hear. He moves around the dorm with head bowed and shoulders rounded, the knots of his spine visible through his shirt.

There are rumors, whispers about men who have grown truly desperate. They go to extreme lengths to fill their stomachs and fuel their addictions. When selling their labor isn’t enough, these men sell the only thing they have left. They sell themselves.

What’s their price? I wonder. What’s mine?

It must be easy, as an outsider looking in, to wonder how anyone could possibly come to blows over a pouch of commissary tuna that costs $1.01. How could anyone be so childish over something so small? But size is a matter of scale and degree. If it took you 10 hours of work to earn that tuna, I bet you’d put your fists up too. And if, God forbid, you earned it by following another man into the showers after dark? How far would you go to protect it then?

After finishing a dinner of rubberized meat, potato salad and peas in the chow hall, I return to the dorm and try to relax in the back of the TV room. Nicki Minaj has just released the music video for her single “Anaconda,” and it’s playing on the countdown show "106 & Park." Every man in the room is spellbound, transfixed by Nicki as her body gyrates across the screen between flashes of gold, fancy heels and limited edition sneakers. If the video doesn’t end soon, there are going to be puddles of drool on the floor. I’m going to wish I had my mop.

America may be insulated from the sight of its prisons, but the opposite couldn’t be further from the truth. The country’s cultural values announce themselves through commercials and magazine ads full of smiling couples, expensive clothes and oceanfront houses that no inmate can afford. These images tell each American, whether confined or free, that our earning power makes up the lion’s share of our value in society. It’s the most tangible measure of our worth.

According to the state, I’m worth a few large cups of coffee per month. I’m worth a mid-range vacuum cleaner per year. Maybe the rest of my life could buy a pair of Nicki’s shoes.

After I’m released from prison, I apply for a job as a dishwasher at a restaurant, then another as an overnight gas station attendant. It feels decadent to think I could soon be making almost $9 an hour. I’m almost giddy with the prospect, until it becomes clear that neither employer is going to contact me. I fill out more applications, walk into restaurants and pitch myself cold. I grow increasingly frantic as my parole officer starts to ask how the job search is going.

Weeks pass this way. It occurs to me that I’ve stumbled upon the final lesson prison was designed to teach. The pocket change I earned inside wasn’t an end in itself. It was never meant to demonstrate the value of hard work or prepare me to re-enter the job market. Slave labor isn’t preparation for success. It was a transitional tool meant to teach me my place — something to acclimate me and let me down slowly, cushion the shock of what was sure to come next, after I returned to the real world as a convicted felon.

“It’s not that you aren’t worth much,” say the Help Wanted signs that remain up long after I call, the blank faces of managers behind counters. “It’s that you aren’t worth anything at all.”

By Michael Fischer

Michael Fischer is a graduate student in Chicago and a mentor for incarcerated authors through the Pen-City Writers program.

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