By Kieran K. Meadows
State and local inmates will soon be able to work for nonprofit agencies again—and this time it will be legal.
New York voters approved a ballot proposition in the recent general election that allows prisoners to perform volunteer work for nonprofit organizations. The result now enables the state Assembly to begin drafting a law outlining guidelines on how the work would be done. The prisoner advocacy community is planning to make a concerted effort to influence the bill’s content.
Prisoners in New York have long worked on municipal jobs, such as being part of a crew that cleans up a state-run site like a park. The ballot measure’s passing, by 68 to 32 percent, clears up a legal question that had halted sheriff-sponsored programs that had brought inmates to work at charities, fairgrounds, cemeteries, churches, and other nonprofits.
“This just makes it possible once again,” said John Caher, spokesman for the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.
The practice had been considered illegal due to a provision in the state Constitution that says no prisoner “shall be farmed out, contracted, given or sold to any person, firm, association or corporation.” The Constitution, however, does permit prisoners to work for public purposes on state projects.
According to Caher, the state Commission of Correction four years ago advised sheriffs to discontinue the practice of allowing inmates to work for nonprofits. Since then, the New York State Sheriffs’ Association has lobbied the Legislature to change correction law to allow the practice. However, because it was prohibited by the Constitution, passing a statute is insufficient—an amendment is required to make it legal.
In order to pass an amendment in New York, voters must approve a ballot proposition. To get on the ballot, the question must first pass the Assembly and Senate in two successive sessions—this question has overwhelmingly passed both houses twice.
The ballot measure’s passing now authorizes the state Legislature to write a law to amend the state Constitution.
“Now that this is legal we will defer to the Legislature and governor to determine whether such an initiative advances the public interest,” Caher.
Some in the prisoner advocacy community are looking to find out what the proposition’s approval will actually mean in practice for inmates.
“This thing caught us a little off guard,” said Dr. Divine Pryor, the director of the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions, the first and only policy and academic research center developed and staffed by formerly incarcerated individuals. “There are many incarceration issues and due to our limited capacity here, we were probably focusing on another priority.”
Now, Pryor said, “the Center is committed to providing legislators the most current and precise information on issues that affect urban communities like the proposition does.”
Pryor and others, like Robert Gangi, the director of the Correctional Association of New York, a prison watchdog group, hope they can influence the specifics of the legislation.
“There are a couple key things for us,” said Gangi. “We want to make sure the work is truly voluntary so that prisoners don’t feel pressured to engage in activities that are unpleasant for them.”
The Assembly will begin to craft a bill in January, at the start of a new session.
“We will team up with the Senate to write a piece of legislation, and then we’ll have some public hearing on it,” said Assemblyman Jeffrion L. Aubry, a Democrat from Queens who chairs the Assembly Correction Committee.
Aubry would like to see some precautions in the legislation, including making sure organizations receiving the benefit of prisoner labor are truly nonprofits and not subsidiaries of for-profit companies.
“We’ll have conversations across the board, with both the institutions as well as the prison advocates to try and figure out how it ought to work to ensure there’s no abuse,” the assemblyman said.
Tom Mitchell, counsel for the New York State Sheriffs’ Association, which supported the measure, said the incentive for inmates is to be able to go outside in nice weather to do maintenance work, like cleaning or painting, and feel their time served is productively spent. He also said the program is an effective jail control tool.
“If you obey the rules, then you are eligible for this program,” said Mitchell.
“No one is forced—a sheriff would never say you have to go out and work,” Mitchell said. “It’s all done by volunteers and I’m sure that sheriffs typically have many more volunteers than positions available,” he said.
Some prisoner advocates say that broader questions about the degree of choice while in prison need to be examined.
“What does it mean to do anything voluntarily when you’re incarcerated?” said Marc Mauer, director of The Sentencing Project, a national organization that studies the criminal justice system. “People in prison don’t have the same options as we do on the outside.”
Mauer cautioned that there are even issues that arise with prisoners working on state projects.
Due to the economic downturn, many budgets across the country have been slashed, and state and local governments may not be able to hire as many employees for public projects. Gov. David Paterson announced this month that New York is facing a $3 billion budget deficit.
Mauer said it could be tempting to look at the prisoner workforce as a cheaper alternative for municipal jobs. “Certainly, with the recession, it increases the possibility that that’s how prison labor could be used,” he said.
There are larger issues too, well beyond this legislation, according to Mauer. Far too many people leave prison without sufficient job experience when they re-enter society. Skills can be built doing work while serving a prison sentence. Simple things, like showing up for work on time or working under a supervisor, can be beneficial experience.
Glenn Martin, who was formerly incarcerated and is now a prisoner advocate for the Fortune Society, said that because of a reduced capacity for work-release programs in the state, people tend to go right from prison back into the community with nothing in between. Therefore, he sees the positive aspects of this opportunity.
But Martin hopes that inmates will be able to obtain much more meaningful positions within nonprofits, rather than be limited to sweeping floors and other maintenance work. “Here at Fortune, which is a nonprofit, we have 92 volunteers on any given day and they do a range of things: from policy advocacy to escorting our clients to medical visits,” he said.
“The legislation will define what the work can look like,” Martin said. “So that’s where we’re hoping to build in protections for prisoners and to see if we can get some prevailing wages—even minimum wages—attached to this whole thing.”
Despite the Fortune Society’s good relationship with members of the Legislature, one key assemblyman may not be as receptive to this as Martin hopes.
“People have suggested to me that the prisoners should be compensated, but then it isn’t volunteer work, and that’s what the amendment clearly called for,” said Assemblyman Aubry.
“I think we should probably increase the amount of money we pay inmates per hour who work in the [Corrections] department,” Aubry said. “But here, if they choose to volunteer, it says something about them—that’s going to be a part of their institutional record. If I’m paying them to do it, it says a whole other thing,” he said.