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Proposal to pay incarcerated workers prompts debate on Allegheny County Jail board's authority

The Allegheny County Jail.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA News

The Allegheny Jail Oversight Board last week rejected a motion to pay incarcerated workers at the facility, sparking discussion about the extent of the board’s authority.

Board members disagreed over whether the county would be obligated to fund the motion if the board were to pass it at a later date without prior allocation.

Incarcerated workers at the county jail don’t currently receive payment for their work doing kitchen, laundry, and general maintenance jobs around the facility. Workers may get extra time out of their cells or a second tray at mealtime as compensation.

The proposal would have compensated them $10 per day of work, to be paid out to their dependents or to be given to them in three chunks after release.

A county spokesperson declined to comment on how many incarcerated people currently work at Allegheny County Jail and why the county favors non-monetary compensation for incarcerated workers.

Allegheny County Councilor Bethany Hallam, who introduced the motion, was the sole vote in its favor. Judge Elliot Howsie voted against the motion.

Most board members, however, said that — while they would support paying incarcerated workers at the jail — they wanted more information about where the funds would come from, among other issues. Abass Kamara, Gayle Moss, Terri Klein, County Controller Corey O’Connor, and senior deputy county manager Stephen Pilarski (who serves as a surrogate for County Executive Rich Fitzgerald) abstained from voting. Judge Beth Lazzara and Sheriff Kevin Kraus were absent.

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This isn’t the first time local elected officials have declined to pay incarcerated workers; a 2021 county council proposal to raise the minimum wage for people who work for Allegheny County on a non-salary basis, including incarcerated people with jobs in the jail, to $15 an hour, failed to gain majority support from the body.

Council later approved a minimum wage increase for county employees, but incarcerated workers had been dropped from the bill. That motion is now stuck in legal limbo.

A similar disagreement is now playing out on the Jail Oversight Board.

The Thirteenth Amendment includes a major exception, allowing slavery and involuntary servitude “as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

Though workers in Pennsylvania and other state prisons receive limited compensation (starting at 19 cents an hour to 23 cents an hour), it’s common practice that municipal jails don’t pay incarcerated workers. The facilities mostly house people who are awaiting trial and haven’t yet been convicted.

The U.S Constitution allows people being held before trial to work for no pay if it’s their choice, but Hallam and public commenters at the Thursday oversight board meeting argued the jail is violating the constitution by refusing to pay incarcerated workers, many of whom have been charged but not convicted.

“Nothing is voluntary. You don't get to just not go to work that day if you don't want to. You lose your job as punishment,” Hallam told WESA before the vote. “They are treated in every aspect as employees and yet do not receive any benefits of being an employee, let alone the slightest bit of compensation for their work.”

The motion was modeled on the policies employed by the state department of corrections.

Labor laws are rarely applied to incarcerated people, whom most courts have held are not “employees” covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act, even when working during pre-trial detention.

Members of the oversight board differ over the extent of its authority

Hallam said she plans to ask county council to allocate $1 million in the 2024 budget to pay incarcerated workers. She argued the money does not have to be in the budget for the oversight board to vote on the motion to pay workers. She estimated that the cost of paying 225 workers for one year would be roughly $820,000.

But other board members, including Controller O’Connor, whose office would disburse the money, said council should budget the funds before the board votes on the proposal.

He said after the vote that he supports paying incarcerated workers, but added that the oversight board does not control money outside of the depleting Incarcerated Individuals Welfare Fund and argued that it can’t mandate the county fund any project. (The IIWF is funded by profits from the jail commissary. The board allots $125 to each incarcerated person per month, which can be used to purchase things like commissary items and phone calls.)

“We need to be responsible in how we're treating people at the residence of the jail. And if we're not going to be genuine in actually getting funding, well, then we're just passing motions to get everybody's hopes up," he said.

“If you want to do this properly, the proper process is to get money, and then we, as the jail oversight board, decide how we’re going to work this out,” he said, later noting that a single budget allotment is likely insufficient to create a long-lasting payment program.

Howsie and Hallam again disagreed on how to interpret the state law that governs the board.

Complicating their discussion is the fact that Allegheny is Pennsylvania’s only second class county. No other county in the commonwealth is bound by the same statute, meaning there are few reliable ways to compare county policies.

“I understand that you've read the statute, and you believe the statute gives this board the ability to enact legislation that directs the county to do things and they are obligated to do it. But do you have any precedent for that?” Howsie asked Hallam at the meeting. “Your interpretation of the statute does not bind other governing bodies.”

Howsie said he would support giving incarcerated workers “$125 [from the IIWF] that they already get for doing nothing,” but did not want to compensate them beyond that.

Hallam maintained that incarcerated people should be paid for the work they do, noting that the change would give incarcerated people a small financial cushion and make reentry easier.

“That helps them secure housing, pay court costs, fines, get their lives on track and shows to greatly reduce recidivism when they know they have this income coming towards them for work that they did while they were incarcerated. They were able to be productive and learn the value of their labor,” she said.

Supporters say not paying incarcerated workers is immoral

Hallam and public commenters at the meeting said paying incarcerated workers is not only a legal question but a moral one.

“It is so unjust and a violation of the Constitution that they are working now without pay. It's absurd. It's time to end slavery at the Allegheny County Jail,” Hallam said.

NAACP Pittsburgh Branch president Daylon Davis called the current practices “deeply concerning.”

“While people are confined and sentenced to jail as a punishment, this should not equate to providing free labor for the jail. The jail’s demographic population is disproportionately composed of Blacks, raising questions about the motivations behind maintaining a system that relies on forced labor,” he said.

“The Jails administration argues that having a job is a privilege and offers additional freedoms. But this should not be used to justify exploitation. Equating an extra food tray with a full day's pay is an unjust practice.”

Davis added that many incarcerated people have court fines, fees and restitution to victims to pay upon their release and may be leaving jail without a place to stay or belongings to return to.

“Releasing individuals from jail without any money, especially for extended periods of time of incarceration, sets individuals up for failure and potentially leads them to recidivism as they resort to crimes of necessity. This so-called ‘revolving door of justice’ can be addressed by ensuring that individuals leaving jail have a better chance of reintegrating into society if they were paid,” he said.

Hallam said she plans to reintroduce the motion at the oversight board’s next meeting in December — after county council votes on the 2024 budget.

Julia Zenkevich reports on Allegheny County government for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at