Correctional Enterprises image posted on the Department of Correction website

Incarcerated prison workers who currently make as little as 30 cents per hour would receive a pay raise under a bill debated Thursday during a public hearing of the legislature’s committee on labor policies. 

State prisons often function as self-contained communities where incarcerated workers perform most of the day-to-day tasks that keep those facilities running smoothly. Duties like serving food, mopping floors and taking the vital signs of patients at sick call are often performed by inmate workers. 

The impact of incarcerated workers can be felt most acutely when incidents trigger prolonged lockdowns that prevent those workers from performing their jobs. Floors go unswept, snow sometimes goes unshoveled and trash bags pile up outside housing units. 

Most prison jobs pay between 75 cents and $1.75 per day, according to a 2018 report by the Office of Legislative Research. Prison pay rates generally declined between 2001 and 2017, according to the Prison Policy Initiative which reported that pay at Connecticut prisons largely ranged between 30 cents and $1.50 per hour.

The bill raised for a public hearing on Thursday would increase the compensation rates of incarcerated workers to ensure they make between $5 and $10 per week and at least $35 per week for inmates with certain specialized skills.

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The proposal comes from Rep. Christopher Rosario, D-Bridgeport, who submitted written testimony to the committee which argued that some additional pay would help incarcerated workers save money and ease their eventual transition back into society. 

“It was alarming to me when I went to a conference this past winter to find out that Connecticut has one of the lowest paid wages for inmates in the country, not in the northeast,” Rosario said during the hearing. “I want to help change that.”

Rosario pointed to other tasks performed by Connecticut inmates like manufacturing vehicle license plates and producing hand sanitizers and masks during the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jess Zaccagnino, policy counsel for the ACLU of Connecticut, testified that the change would also help the families who often help financially support their incarcerated relatives with expenses like food, sanitary and electronic items from the prison commissary system. Zaccagnino said there are other “hidden” costs of incarceration that sometimes fall to families.

“There are commissary costs, costs associated with visitation, legal costs, and sometimes even the costs of housing incarcerated loved ones,” Zaccagnino wrote. “People who bear these costs are often the ones least likely to be able to do so. People from lower-income backgrounds are more likely to be imprisoned.”

John Bowen, a retired Connecticut correction officer, said that many prison inmates are indigent and leave incarceration with little or no financial cushion to support their reentry. Allowing them to save some money while serving time may ultimately help them avoid recidivism, he said.

Bowen also argued that the currently low wages sent prison workers the wrong message because their hard work does not pay.

“I know that there is an argument that inmates should pay the state for the cost of their incarceration,” Bowen wrote. “I get it, but I think that it is unrealistic and doesn’t do anybody any good. Showing inmates that work pays does some good.”

Rosario’s bill has a bipartisan pair of co-sponsors: Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, and Sen. Herron Gaston, D-Bridgeport. No one submitted written objections to the bill ahead of the public hearing and, as of mid-day on Thursday, no one had testified against it.

Sen. Julie Kushner, a Danbury Democrat who co-chairs the labor panel, said members of the committee were “totally unaware of the wages that are earned by folks who are incarcerated.” 

“The lack of awareness as to the amount of pay that is earned is kind of shocking,” Kushner said.

The state Department of Correction did not submit testimony on the bill and a spokesperson for the agency did not respond to a Thursday morning request for comment.