By Gregory B. Hladky
3:15 PM EDT, August 21, 2012
Once in a while, the state of Connecticut knows a good deal when it sees it. Take the miniscule money it’s paying prison inmates to help clean up litter on the side of state highways.
Those dudes are getting $1.75 a day each. The state Department of Transportation is now using 66 inmates (broken into 28 crews) each weekday to remove roadside trash that would otherwise be picked up by state workers.
The total estimated cost for those prison inmate litter picker-uppers is a whopping $27,720 a year – which is less than half the average yearly salary for Connecticut state workers. When inmates aren’t picking up the trash, state employees are, which accounts for most of the approximately $2 million a year the DOT spends on litter removal.
“It’s a good program for us,” admits DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick. “Obviously you can’t get [non-prison] labor at those costs.”
In fact, the DOT is paying what passes for the state of Connecticut’s top-dollar wage for the inmates assigned to trash removal.
The standard corrections pay scale in this state was set in 2002:
-75 cents per day for routine low-level, unskilled work.
-$1.25 per day for more skilled employment that require some training and experience.
-$1.75 for jobs needing “specialized and technical training, which would normally require certification or licensure, or for assignments normally reimbursed from outside sources.”
In case you’re wondering how those pay scales were set, Michael Lawlor says it relates back to “the good old days when inmate worker compensation was a pack of cigarettes for a day’s work.”
Lawlor, who is Gov. Dannel Malloy’s top criminal justice advisor, says that prison officials picked the .75 cents-to-$1.75 pay range when smoking was banned in Connecticut prisons. At the time, those levels of compensation were something close to what a pack of smokes might cost, according to Lawlor.
Picking up bottles and greasy McDonald’s burger wrappers from the side of the highway doesn’t seem to qualify for “specialized and technical training,” but the top-of-the-scale money for those inmates does come from the DOT - a source outside the state Department of Corrections.
The corrections agency itself spent $1,743,316 last year on pay for about 5,900 inmates, according to department spokesman Brian Garnett. “The bulk of them make 75 cents a day,” he adds.
A 2011 state legislative research study reported that 8,317 Connecticut inmates were getting the lowest level pay for the work they were ordered to do, another 1.814 inmates received the mid-level pay, and 1,066 got the big bucks at $1.75 per day.
There are a couple of other, much better paying state inmate programs.
One is the “Correctional Enterprises of Connecticut” operation, which pumps out state license plates, signs, plastic bags, plaques, clothing, pillows, re-upholstered furniture, as well as some data entry and processing. Inmates on those types of jobs can pull down between 30-cents-per-hour and a munificent $1.50 an hour.
Those are also the same wages that inmates working in prison commissaries can make. Garnett says the corrections agency spent $477,960 on Correction Enterprises of Connecticut about 350 inmate workers last year.
The commissaries are the stores where inmates can spend the money they make on stuff like toiletries, food items, hair-curling irons. “It’s not Amazon.com,” says Lawlor. “It’s pretty basic.”
Total commissary sales in 2009-10 amounted to $14.6 million. A little added bonus for the state is that it got about $261,000 in sales taxes from its inmates that year.
According to that 2011 legislative report, there were 486 inmates working in “correctional enterprises” or commissary jobs.
There’s also something called the “Private Sector Prison Industry” program, and that’s the only one of these job categories that’s voluntary. (In all the others, eligible inmates who refuse to work or screw up on the job can be punished.)
Under this program, inmates work for private sector companies that operate inside our prisons, and those inmates must be paid prevailing wages. State regulations insist that companies can’t replace existing employees with inmate labor.
One example in that 2010 report was an outfit called SourceOne, which was paying female inmates in the York Correctional Facility in Niantic $8.71 per hour to scan documents such as utility bills, architectural drawings and other documents into computers.
Connecticut’s inmate pay scales fall somewhere in the mid-range for state prisons, according to various sources.
UNICOR, the federal prison system’s inmate-worker program pays between 23-cents an hour and $$1.15 per hour. According to a CNN report, some federal contractors are furious that UNICOR is getting federal agency contracts for making goods that would otherwise go to private companies.
“In almost every state, the inmate pay is comparable to what we pay here,” says Lawlor. He argues that the program both saves taxpayers money and serves as an “inmate control mechanism.”
“There are more inmates who want to work than there are jobs for them,” Lawlor says, which means that a work assignment is usually a reward for good behavior and that an inmate’s job can be taken away if he or she messes up.
But is the pay scale fair for the work being done?
“In the total scheme of things, I’d say it’s probably more fair than unfair,” says former state Rep. William R. Dyson of New Haven. Dyson, whose son served time, has worked for years on programs to help former inmates adjust to life outside prison and cut reduce the number of ex-cons to end up back behind bars.
He says there are arguments for giving inmates higher wages, particularly if they’re trying to pay off debts or back tax bills or child support.
“There’s probably some unfairness there,” Dyson adds, “but it could be worse.”
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