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State Prisons Offset New Inmate Wage Hikes by Cutting Hours for Some Workers

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Incarcerated women in beige outfits work at sewing tables.
Incarcerated women sew protective masks at Las Colinas Women's Detention Facility in Santee, San Diego County, on April 22, 2020.  (Sandy Huffaker/AFP via Getty Images)

California prison officials recently boosted wages for tens of thousands of incarcerated workers. Most, however, will still make less than $1 per hour, and many may not see an increase in total earnings because their hours will be cut.

Pay rates now generally range from $0.16 to $0.74 per hour, depending on skill levels, double the previous decades-old rate, according to new regulations that went into effect on April 16.

The increase is intended to incentivize incarcerated people to take jobs for their own rehabilitation, said the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which also eliminated all unpaid job assignments.

“New wages will also help workers meet restitution payments for crime victims and save more money in preparation for release,” Tessa Outhyse, a CDCR spokesperson, said in a statement. “In addition to a paycheck, work assignments build technical and social skills, instill accountability and responsibility, and prepare incarcerated people for careers after release.”

Nearly 39,000 incarcerated people have job assignments in state prisons, doing everything from construction and maintenance to custodial and food services.

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About 1,200 incarcerated firefighters, who are on a separate pay scale, will also now make anywhere from $5.80 to $10.24 a day, a significant increase over the previous daily range of $2.90 to $5.13. Cal Fire also pays an additional $1 per hour for crews battling active fires.

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However, an overall pay increase may not materialize for many incarcerated workers. Outhyse confirmed that as CDCR boosts wages, it also plans to reduce up to three-quarters of its full-time job offerings to half-time — although it said it is “not conducting a wholesale reduction.”

“CDCR is exploring the introduction of some flexibility in this area to accommodate institution budget requirements as well as the possibility of increasing inmates’ flexibility to participate in rehabilitative program assignments,” the agency wrote in response to public comment concerns.

Prisoner rights advocates pushed for a much higher pay increase, one closer to California’s minimum wage of $16 an hour, without reductions in full-time jobs.

Jacob Hutt, an attorney with the Prison Law Office, said the new wages are not setting up people in custody to succeed when released.

“By paying people a slave wage right now, they are all but ensuring that people are going to end up in poverty once they leave custody,” he said.

In addition, CDCR often deducts up to 55% of an incarcerated workers’ wages for administrative costs and restitution fees for crime victims, Hutt added, further reducing their net pay and ability to purchase canteen items.

“Even when you don’t consider the fact that so many of these workers are actually not going to receive any pay increase because they’re being forced from full-time to half-time, the minimum pay raise is just so ridiculously low,” he said.

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