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A heavy chain lays on top of a one and five dollar bill.
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This article was first published by Mule Creek Post, a newspaper at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, California. Aside from the headline, it appears as it was published and has not been edited by PJP.

If you spent over 40 long years at the same tedious job, and retired with a final paycheck equal to the first one you received, how would you feel about yourself?

CDCR inmates with pay numbers have existed in the financial fantasyland since before the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Summer Games. Inmate wages have stagnated for over four decades, and actually decreased in 1991, never to return to original levels.

Inmate research at Centinela State Prison in 2014 attempted to determine the last hike in prisoner pay scales with no confirmation through prison or state sources. Nobody knew.

This 2014 research came as a result of a series of canteen price increases showing an average gain of over 49% on just 15 items over 10 years. With a broader comparison of a 20-year span, a 2022 examination showed the average canteen item increase averaged 79% and no pay elevation — yet.

California Senate Resolution 69 calls for “a livable wage for the over 40,000 incarcerated prisoners, who can earn as little as eight cents an hour,” said Esteben Nuñez, a state policy director. “Incarceration does not justify inhumane compensation.”

An amendment to the California Constitution (ACA-3) is proposed for the November 2022 ballot, seeking to end the “plantation-like, unpaid, forced labor” in California prisons. Former state prisoner Samual Brown said in a May 30, 2022 ABC News interview:

“This amendment does not directly address elevating prisoner pay, but provides for ‘livable wages’ for all inmates employed in the CDCR.”

A simple fact of inmate life: Almost 100% of an inmate’s account balance is spent on canteen purchases. A raise in wages, and actually compensating unpaid laborers, increases purchasing power and canteen (prison) profits equal to the raise.

Indirect benefits from an elevation of inmate pay scales:

  • Increased inmate payments to the Victim/Restitution fund and PLRA payments (50% of prisoner pay is withheld routinely–higher wages = increased payments)
  • Increased inmate pay allows more participation in quarterly charitable, outside vendor sales, thus, more charitable contributions to local beneficiaries and positive publicity for the institutions.

The concept of the “R” in CDCR — rehabilitation — should include real-world practices. No “outside” businesses would survive without adequate compensation to its employees and cost-of-living raises. Inmates should be treated in prison as they would expect to be outside.

While prisons are isolated economies, inmate purchasing power benefits prison programs as well as local, outside businesses. Canteen profits power the Inmate Welfare fund actually financing and, in essence, reimbursing the State. A substantial increase in Inmate Pay Scale levels makes sense.

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.

John L. Orr is a writer incarcerated in California.