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NY Inmates Worked For Slave Wages At Peak of Pandemic

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, news outlets reported that New York prisoners were being forced to make hand sanitizer and coffins. Though elected officials and advocates for criminal justice reform criticized what they called the use of “slave labor” in the state’s pandemic response, the extent of this work by the incarcerated was never known, the Intercept reports. New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision data shows that inmates were also forced to perform a range of other jobs for penny wages during the height of the pandemic, including asbestos abatement and removal of lead paint. “COVID pulled the curtain back on what has always existed in New York, which are these slave-like conditions for people who are incarcerated,” said Lisa Zucker of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Inmates aren’t just making license plates or mass-producing hand sanitizer, Zucker said: “Literally the chairs that members of the legislature sit on are made by incarcerated people. When you call the Department of Motor Vehicles, you are talking to someone incarcerated at the Bedford Women’s Facility.” Seven states have abolished slavery for people convicted of crimes, which is allowed as an exception to the prohibition of slavery in the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. New York’s state constitution has no provision mentioning slavery, nor any protections for incarcerated workers. People incarcerated in New York state have documented their working conditions in letters to legal advocates. The letters describe unlivable wages of cents per hour; retaliation against people who miss or refuse to perform work, in the form of assault and threats of relocation to more dangerous cell blocks; and inability to afford basic necessities required to survive in prison.


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