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Allegheny County Jail Doesn’t Pay Its Incarcerated Workers, ‘A Common Practice’ At Jails

90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
About 165 of the roughly 1,700 people housed at the county jail hold kitchen, laundry, and general maintenance jobs, according to county data.

People who work while detained at Allegheny County Jail would earn a $15 minimum wage under a county council bill introduced last month. If approved, the proposal would mark a dramatic change for a workforce that receives no wages today.

Instead, the county rewards incarcerated workers with extra time out of their cells, as well as a second tray at mealtime and possible contact visits, according to county officials and jail policy.

County data shows that about 165 of the roughly 1,700 people housed at the county jail hold kitchen, laundry, and general maintenance jobs.

A spokesperson did not respond to emails asking why the county favors non-monetary compensation for incarcerated workers. But Loyola University New Orleans law professor Andrea Armstrong said the county’s system represents “a common practice both at jails and prisons.”

Armstrong noted that jails differ from prisons because they mostly house people who are awaiting trial and haven’t been convicted. Under the Thirteenth Amendment, only those who have been convicted of a crime can be forced to perform labor beyond the daily upkeep of their individual living spaces. But even so, Armstrong said, the Constitution still allows people being held before trial to work for no pay — as long as it’s their choice.

For many in jail, she said, that choice boils down to "you can either just live your everyday life in your cell, where there isn't perhaps that much interaction or where you may not feel safe or where the conditions are less than optimal, [or] instead of that … eight hours a day, you can be outside of your cell and you can be in the kitchen, which means you get an extra portion [of food], or you can have other positive incentives.

“And so by offering people different privileges, that's a way of incentivizing who volunteers and who doesn't," Armstrong concluded.

Labor laws governing wages and work hours almost never apply to incarcerated people. “What courts have held,” Armstrong said, “is that people who are incarcerated are not considered quote-unquote ‘employees’” who are entitled to labor protections.

As an example in Pennsylvania, she cited a 1999 federal appeals court ruling that held that an incarcerated man was deemed not to be an employee covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act, even when he worked during pre-trial detention. The court reasoned that the federal labor statute was meant to protect the well-being of workers who compete in the free-market economy.

Still, Armstrong said, “The majority of prisons do offer some sort of what they call ‘incentive wages.’”

A 2017 study found that, on average, wages at state and federal prisons range from 14 cents to $1.41 an hour.

Philadelphia jails pay most incarcerated workers $1.50 a day, according to Philadelphia Department of Prisons chief of staff Greg Vrato. Those who work in food production, however, earn $2 a day, while people with jobs in trades such as carpentry or machine work receive 40 to 60 cents an hour.

Hourly wages for Pennsylvania prisoners who make goods sold to state government agencies and nonprofits, meanwhile, range from 19 cents to $1.21. Under state corrections policy, the standard work day lasts six hours, and exact wage rates depend on the skill level of a work assignment, as well as job performance.

Inmates could earn prevailing, private-sector wages under a federal program that allows federal agencies to buy items that state prisoners have produced. The Pennsylvania legislature has not approved participation in the program, although Ryan Tarkowski, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, said his agency would support the change.

State corrections officials would need to assure federal authorities that the program would not displace workers in surrounding communities.

County council’s $15 minimum wage proposal, by contrast, could entice people who are not incarcerated to apply for jobs at the county jail, noted Armstrong, the Loyola New Orleans professor.

“I think if [a job is] paying a real wage, there certainly would be a question of why are these real-wage jobs limited to people who are detained pending trial?” she said.

Regardless, Bret Grote, a local prisoner rights advocate who leads the Abolitionist Law Center, called the county council bill “a great idea [that] should be applauded.”

He predicted that it would help people who are detained at the jail to pay for phone calls, and to obtain necessities such as toiletries, shoes, and extra food, which are only available for purchase through the facility’s commissary.

“But also,” Grote added, “taking the profits of other people's labor without compensation is fundamentally immoral and unjust.”

An-Li Herring is a reporter for 90.5 WESA, with a focus on economic policy, local government, and the courts. She previously interned for NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, and the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pittsburgh native, An-Li completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and earned her law degree from Stanford University. She can be reached at aherring@wesa.fm.