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Locked Up

New York’s Prison Labor System: ‘You Got the Slaves, and You Got the Masters’

Testifying to state lawmakers, former incarcerated workers for the state’s Corcraft program described a regime of exploitation.

Acting DOCCS Commissioner Daniel Martuscello III testified at a hearing on Corcraft Monday. (NY Senate / YouTube)

New York's prison labor system, in which incarcerated people make everything from office furniture and uniforms to license plates and hand sanitizer, earning pennies an hour, is not some coercive analog of slavery, Acting Commissioner Daniel Martuscello III, who runs the state prison system, told a New York State Senate panel Monday. It's rehabilitative, teaching people in custody useful skills they can take back to the job market upon release, becoming productive members of society. People aren't punished for being too sick to work. They can earn time off their sentence with their labor. People aren't even required to work in the prison industry—whose products are sold to government and non-profit clients under the brand name Corcraft—at all. 

"If we were to eliminate that program," Martuscello testified, "we would be doing a disservice to the people that are entrusted to us. We have an obligation to provide incarcerated individuals with the skills necessary to address their needs."

The joint hearing—convened by the Committees on Investigations and Government Operations, Crime Victims, Crime, and Correction, as well as Procurement and Contracts, was framed as an open-ended fact-finding process, but several pieces of pending legislation provided a backdrop: Two bills would raise the minimum wage of imprisoned workers to either $1.20 or $3 an hour. (The current Corcraft payscale begins at 10 cents an hour and tops out for a select few at 65 cents an hour.) A third would create an oversight board to determine if Corcraft is meeting minimum labor standards. Yet another would outlaw forced or coerced labor in New York's jails and prisons.

Current law doesn't allow Corcraft to sell to private industry, but it does confer "preferred source" status on the company, meaning that public agencies throughout the state are required to buy Corcraft products when they meet their specifications. But despite paying its workforce a tiny percentage of minimum wage, Corcraft products aren't consistently cheaper than other products on the market, raising the question of whether the program is actually saving taxpayers money. A jug of the company's foaming soap costs $15.63, nearly twice what a comparable product goes for on wholesaling sites. "How do you justify that?" Senator James Skoufis asked Department of Corrections and Community Supervision commissioner Martuscello.

Marcuscello's answer was illuminating: incarcerated people may be paid hardly anything at all, but the New York prison system employs 230 people to manage and run Corcraft. "As part of paying that, we have to abide with union contracts, as well as… fringe benefits," he said. 

So the state is in the business of extracting labor value from incarcerated people and transferring it to guards, managers, and other state employees? Why is that a good project? Maruscello's answer is that the true purpose of Corcraft is as a career training program, that trains incarcerated people in marketable skills. "The program actually teaches them," he said. "When they come to the program, when they initiate, they don't have that background. We build the skills."

Martuscello and his colleagues at the DOCCS left the hearing room immediately after their testimony, so they didn't hear panel after panel of experts and formerly incarcerated people give the lie to their claims.

"They fed you a lot of crap, man," Ronald Dennis, who served 36 years, some of it pressing license plates for Corcraft, said of the long departed prison officials. "The commissioner says that you can take the skills home and use them. Name me one company in the United States—not just New York, but the United States—that presses license plates. I'm 66 years old, and I still have pain in my hands by putting them dies in the machines."

Ronald Dennis (NY Senate / YouTube)

New York's prison labor system both directly descends from chattel slavery and replicates its key structural elements, Kalya Vinson, director of the Law and Racial Justice Center at Yale Law School, testified. It uses the force of law to redistribute the labor of incarcerated people, it relies on systems of punishments of prison apparatus to coerce compliance, and, as with slavery, it's products are everywhere: on every car, in many public offices, on fire hydrants and school lockers and park barbecue grills. "The Corcraft model is old wine in new skin," she concluded.

Corcraft may be a technically voluntary program, said Bianca Tylek of Worth Rises, an advocacy group, but what does voluntary mean inside a prison environment where the employment at Corcraft may be someone's only opportunity for basic necessities?

"Having to work multiple hours to simply afford toothpaste, soap, shampoo—these are not luxuries, people are not going to commissary in order to afford luxuries, they're going to commissary to actually have a basic dignified life behind bars."

Jodi Anderson of Cornell University's ILR School, who spent time locked up in New York prisons and worked for Corcraft making 16 cents an hour, agreed. "Going to Corcraft, that is how individuals not only pay for food and pay for other goods, but that's how you take showers," he said. "Getting a shower is guaranteed if you go and work at Corcraft."

Corcraft managers have coercive tools unavailable to those on the open market, Anderson testified. Attempting to discuss pay, conditions or workplace safety is met with punishments that can include loss of privileges or even solitary confinement. 

Joseph Soto (NY Senate / YouTube)

Corcraft employees don't really have the opportunity to call in sick either, testified Joseph Soto of the Fortune Society, who spent 25 years in New York prisons. "You cannot be excused for work without a doctor's note, you cannot obtain a doctor's note without going to sick call; you cannot get to sick call without missing work," Soto said. "It's a Catch-22."

Soto left prison with a certificate from Corcraft as a machine operator, for all the good it did him. "I couldn't get a job out here for nothing," he said. "But I keep it, just in case the world ends and I need toilet paper."

"I know men have worked in Corcraft their entire sentence—15 years, 20 years, 25 years," said Jose Saldana of the Release Aging People from Prison campaign, who served 38 years in New York prisons. "Imagine you're working for an entire lifetime and your labor is measured in pennies. When we are released, all in the years, the decades of labor do not count for unemployment benefits. Not a single day."

Jose Saldana (NY Senate / YouTube)

Saldana urged lawmakers to abolish Corcraft. "​​If it wasn't designed as a training program, it wasn't designed to help men and women become better humans, if it wasn't designed to help us learn how to take responsibility, help us develop insight into the harm, help us embrace as our moral obligation that we are commanded to repair harm, if it doesn't do any of those things, then what value does it have?"

Soto wasn't optimistic that any legislative investigation could dislodge Corcraft from the prison system. "You got the slaves and you got the masters, right? If the slave say something, who's going to believe the slave over the master?" Soto asked. "Corcraft is a powerful industry that, I'm sorry to say, but I don't really think anybody else in this room is gonna make a difference, because they're so powerful. The masters are at work."

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