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.”