Prison wages are stubbornly stagnant. The old-timers here at the State Correctional Institution at Fayette in Pennsylvania have told me the last one was 30 years ago, when the top pay scale increased by one penny in 1995.
The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has said on record that it doesn’t officially know when the last pay increase happened, but other anecdotal testimony supports my reporting that it happened some time in the 1990s.
In the 23 years I have been in prison, I certainly have never once seen an increase to pay scales of incarcerated workers. That was the case until this year.
As of Jan. 1, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has raised the pay scale for people incarcerated in state prisons by 20%. The minimum wage has gone from 19 cents to 23 cents, and the hourly range is now 23 cents to 50 cents for most jobs.
Though confined to corrections facilities, incarcerated workers have not been immune from the same struggles and changes that have impacted the whole world throughout much of the past three years. Despite being separated from friends and families, we were also subjected to challenges like social distancing, mask mandates and required vaccinations.
Those who refused to comply with these rules were isolated in a designated housing unit. By the end of 2022, much of these restrictions have eased, both inside and outside.
In a memo dated December 29, 2022, that announced the changes, Secretary of Corrections George Little referenced the record-high post-pandemic inflation rate and supply chain issues that have hindered the progress made.
According to an analysis by Pennsylvania Prison Society, which advocates for humane prison conditions, the cost of products in Pennsylvania state prison commissaries increased by nearly 27% last year.
Stock shortages and product cost increases did not stop at the front gate of any of the prisons in Pennsylvania, of course. Perhaps we can be a bit grateful that the effects were delayed. Long before we felt the changes inside, we were hearing about the impacts on the outside world from the news media and calls to family and friends back home.
Many of the basic staples of the incarcerated population have increased. A packet of ramen noodles that used to cost 28 cents is now 38 cents. A 4 ounce bag of Maxwell House coffee went from $2.91 to $3.61. A particular brand of deodorant went from $2.31 to $2.95; a bar of soap that used to go for 83 cents is now $1.49.
This may not seem like much to a person on the outside making $10 to $12 per hour. But you feel that 15% increase a lot more when you are making the 19 cents to 42 cents an hour that we do in prison. It can take a full day’s work to afford a single bar of soap.
Sec. Little’s memo showed empathy for the challenge faced by inmates reading, “You have taken these changes in stride, and we appreciate your cooperation during this time. We also understand the burden the rising costs have placed on you and your families.”
Just two months passed between the commissary price increases and the breaking news of a pay scale increase. With the pay scale increase retroactively applied from Dec. 1, 2022, there is only a month gap where our wages are not rising with inflation.
Since the pay scale raises starting pay from 19 cents an hour to 23 cents an hour, that equals $1.84 per day, or $38.64 for a 21-day month of work. For reference, those who want access to cable television service pay $17 per month from our wages. So even now, we are left with no more than $21.64 each month to survive on.
The scale described is the base scale and most will receive a raise relatively quickly based on job performance.
I have been asked what the point is in writing an article like this. Why should the general public care about the whining of a lowly inmate, especially when so many people are homeless, and even more are unable to work and provide for their families.
Under direct supervision, inmates cook the food, fix the buildings, maintain the grounds and operate the libraries that keep carceral institutions functioning. Individuals who have completed vocational or educational classes may be considered for positions such as teaching assistants or tutors.
It’s no secret that corrections is a costly business. Now consider if all those positions held by inmates had to be staffed by professionals and paid state wages. A single state corrections officer, who’s making a starting salary, costs the same as it does to pay more than 100 inmate employees. You don’t need to do much math to see that the cost of running correction facilities would skyrocket — that is if enough staffing could even be found.
The benefit of this arrangement for the institution is a much less expensive workforce; the benefit for the incarcerated population is the opportunity to learn a trade that could be useful upon the return to free society. Having professional skills under one’s belt will hopefully decrease the need to re-offend, and in turn benefit society as a whole.
In this sense, the increase in the prison pay scale is a relatively small price to pay. But Sec. Little’s administration should be commended for this courageous move, which risks pushback from society.
This is, of course, not the first time inflation has impacted prices inside Pennsylvania prisons. Past administrations have either struggled to implement a wage increase, or have simply chosen not to address the needs of the prison population.
The pay scale increase will not drastically change our lives. Some may consider it a meager increase. But I am proud that this administration recognized that incarcerated men and women deserve more, and actually made it happen. By helping the incarcerated become more self-sufficient, this humane act is a true step towards rehabilitation.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.