Prison Wages and Abolition

While reading a copy of the Everett Herald I found an article that made me go “huh.”

“Judge to reverse ruling on detainee wages” 9/25/19. I didn’t know anything about this before coming across the article. In summary, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued the company that owns the NW Detention/Processing Center that incarcerates people on the behalf of ICE. That company, GEO, has been paying its incarcerated workers $1.00 an hour. AG Ferguson says they should be paid the Washington minimum wage $12.00 per hour and the judge agreed at first, then changed their mind because incarcerated people in the Washington DOC make between $0.42 and $1.70 an hour. The judge pointed out that it is hypocritical to force ICE to pay their incarcerated workers minimum wage and not pay WA DOC incarcerated workers minimum wage.

The part that made me go “huh” is not the AG being a hypocrite, the part that makes me go “huh” is that he’s being called on it publicly by another government official.
While they use hypocritical arguments and dehumanizing counter arguments, the real problem is that we, as a society, are treating humans as a disposable commodity to be bought, sold, consumed, and thrown away. While “get rid of all exploitation” would be the most radical solution, I would like to discuss what I think might be a good temporary solution which will hopefully help us get a little closer to where we want to be from where we currently are.

All my immediate ideas are based in the concept of making prison more expensive and thus a less affordable/palatable solution to the state and corporations. For example, my first thought is to increase the pay of incarcerated people so that we can afford to pay off our debts and and pay for our own educations, and pay into our social security. The idea being that it would no longer be financially viable to exploit incarcerated workers. It was pointed out to me that in Colorado when they began to receive higher wages the prison countered by eliminating the number of positions available and completely disregarding any concern for the working conditions of their laborers. Furthermore, this would be a solution that reinforces capitalism. My second idea is a socialist solution. Give incarcerated people an allowance separate from our labor. The problem with this solution is it removes motivation and desire for self sufficiency from many of the people in prison. Of course, neither of these are workable from the point of view of prison abolition.

Besides the issue of the continued existence of mass incarceration, there is the issue of artificial scarcity. Through engineering a lack of resources and opportunities, the DOC is able to cement its control over the lives of incarcerated people. A 40% unemployment rate in prison means there usually be enough scabs to prevent a general prison strike from being a viable solution for incarcerated people. A lack of education means most people who get out of prison do not have the skill and knowledge to stay out of prison. A lack of quality food creates a situation where people feel their lack of personal empowerment as very real hunger and sickly feelings every day. The criminalization of physical contact means prisoners are deprived of having even our most basic emotional needs met. All these deprivations taken collectively form a web of psychological coercion which begs us to harm each other for the most temporary of reprieves and as long as we are at each other’s throats, we are not standing against our oppressors.

Therefore, a possible solution could be to legislate against the engineered scarcity found in prison. This solution is a slippery slope, it would have to be done in a way that fits with prison abolitionist values. We don’t want to make more comfortable cages, we want to empower incarcerated people in ways which allow us to better fight the PIC and create a world without cages. Thus, for example, eliminating the scarcity of education may serve our abolitionist values, but increasing the wages of incarcerated workers may not. Due to this fuzzy line between the things which will help incarcerated people like myself feel better about being in prison verses the things which will support incarcerated people to act in solidarity with our fellow oppressed people in bringing about an end to empire.

I say “an end to empire” because it is more than just the Prison Industrial Complex. It’s all the cages, physical, social, and psychological. It’s capitalist cis-hetero-patriarchal white supremacist settler colonial ablest psycho-normativity. It’s all the ways society (especially and including those we love and who love us) tells us we are not good enough, tells us “they” are not good enough.

It is exactly this kind of thinking which is shaping the agenda of people like number 45 and AG Ferguson. They want to “win” in some inhumane game where human lives are nothing more than so many poker chips to be anted, wagered, and lost.

Even though I am a US born citizen, I feel fairly confident in saying the following about the needs of people in the NW Detention/Transfer Center. Then need to not be imprisoned. They need a chance to support themselves and their families. They need to be treated as human beings, not as faceless statistics. They need to not be terrorized in an allegedly “free” country. These things seem fairly straight forward to me. Why is there no conversation about helping people immigrate to other affluent countries? There is no reason not to let more people settle in the US and there is no reason not to help people settle in other countries as well. The rhetoric of “send them back” seems stupid and hateful to me. What not “help them forward” in whatever form that happens to take?

Like I said, I have the privilege of having been born a US citizen and thus don’t actually know what I’m talking about. On the other hand, I’ve found that one rarely goes wrong when one shows up with love and compassion.


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