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Free market principles behind push for higher prisoner pay


Hoping to bring some free market principles to the prison industry, Sen.-elect John Kavanagh wants to raise the wage cap on inmates’ hourly pay.

Inmates working as a part of intergovernmental agreements – a Department of Corrections program providing work crews to state and local government agencies in Arizona – have made no more than 50 cents per hour since 1978.

Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said the Department of Corrections asked him to sponsor SB1002, which would raise the hourly cap to $1.50.

The Corrections Department has fielded complaints from some employers that prisoners aren’t choosing more demanding jobs because the pay doesn’t reflect the extra labor, Kavanagh said.

“There are some employers who utilize prison labor that have more technical jobs to be performed, that they’re more technical and more demanding,” he said. “With the wage at $0.50, a lot of prisoners don’t request more technical jobs because for the exact same wage they can do an easy job.”

By increasing an inmate’s hourly wage for some more difficult labor, “the free market will come into play and they’ll be willing to do the extra work because they’re going to get extra pay,” Kavanagh said.

Doug Nick, a spokesman for the department, said the new cap would also put Arizona inmate wages more in line with what other states pay working prisoners, and provide an update to a statute that hasn’t been changed in decades.

The new pay scale would only apply to intergovernmental agreements, Nick said.

Inmates working through Arizona Correctional Industries – a program with the Department of Corrections that supplies inmate labor to private companies contracting with the prison system – are paid at least $2 per hour, according to state statute.

The companies must also cover transportation costs and other related expenses to the Corrections Department.

“Inmates obviously know what jobs are available, if they’re eligible for those types of jobs,” Nick said. “So it’s a matter of an inmate saying, ‘Well, I’d like to try to get a job with Arizona Correctional Industries that pays more, versus a job that pays less.’ So we’re trying to address some of that.”

By creating a more competitive salary for intergovernmental agreement jobs, Nick said the department also hopes to create more consistency among the workforce.

“Inmates get to know a job, get to know what’s expected of them,” he said. “Raising the cap helps us do that because it makes the pay scale a little more equitable so there’s less movement of inmates trying to find something better.”

Inmate pay can be used to cover court expenses or pay restitution, supply money to dependents and living expenses beyond the minimum provided to inmates, said lobbyist Barrett Marson, a former spokesman for the Department of Corrections.

Inmates historically make less than the minimum wage because, as a part of their incarceration, basic room and board expenses are covered, Marson said.

And for some inmates, the ability to get out of prison for work is an appeal beyond what they’re paid, he said.

“It’s almost a reward in and of itself just to get out and work outside the confines of prison,” Marson said.






  1. middlegroundprisonreform

    What the DOC is not saying is that when prisoners work for ACI, they are required to pay room and board expenses, in addition to court-ordered restitution, child support, fines, fees, etc. So, their NET pay results in a wage that is about $.50/hour. This is still better than the regular prison wages, which average on $.25/hour and which can go as high as $.50/hour, but it still isn’t the same as “earning” $2.00 or $1.50 per hour in wages. Although prison wages are very modest, prisoners still pay regular prices at the inmate commissary for such things as laundry soap, toothpaste, hygiene products, food and snack items, envelopes for letter writing, etc. So, the idea that prisoners will be able to save vast amounts of money to take with them upon release from prison is not accurate. The key question in this proposal is: When prisoners are making $1.50/hour as proposed in this bill, will they be charged room and board expenses from their wages, just as those who work for ACI are charged?

  2. It’s still legalized slavery. Read the first half of the 13th Amendment.

  3. If the inmates actually get all of the money they are promised and the prison doesn’t end up taking more from them because of this. My daughter is working very hard there and she is doing so well. She hopes to continue on the outside in the type of job she is doing now with quality control. She is very sharp and is a good role model for most of these girls there.

    I hope that this becomes beneficial to the well deserving prisoner who shows that the system is working.

  4. The article fails to mention that inmates who work for ACI (Arizona Correctional Industries) are required to pay “room and board” expenses for their incarceration. This money is deducted from the higher wages paid to them along with any court-ordered fines, fees, child support, restitution, and so on. If the room-and-board language isn’t included in this bill, you can be sure that it soon will be mandated that any prisoner earning $1.50/hour (as opposed to the current maximum wage allowed of $.50/hour) will be required to pay room and board. So, prisoners won’t be putting $1.50 in their pocket and they won’t be saving enormous amounts of money from their wages. Still, we will likely support this bill (once we have a chance to read its exact language). Prisoners have to pay for commissary items such as laundry soap, toothpaste, some items of clothing and postage stamps and writing materials at the same prices as free-world people pay in the community. So, whether they are making $.20/hour (as the vast majority do) or $1.50 to $2.00/hour, they still can’t pocket it for their release money. There is a back story to every issue.

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