The MDOC requires inmates to work while they are incarcerated unless they are medically unable to or in the GED program. As with so many other things the reality is far different from the policy. Inmates do a lot of waiting and that includes on lists to get into school or a job. I wanted to be a tutor as my first choice from day 1 in prison and since there were no Level IV tutors at my facility I had to settle for a job as a Unit Porter cleaning bathrooms and mopping floors. When I got to Level II, I was able to get on the waiting list for a position in the school to open up. In the interim I again worked as a Unit Porter. When I was moved to another facility, I choose to simply go on the waiting list for a tutor job. It took a year for a position to open up. I knew guys who would purposefully choose jobs with long waiting lists simply to avoid working. The Parole Board couldn’t hold it against you if you didn’t work so long as you were on the waiting list. It was all part of the game.
The MDOC is exempt from the minimum wage law for paying inmates. It might be fair to call it slave labor since without inmates working to perform so many functions from food service to facility maintenance, the cost of incarceration would be far more expensive. According to the Policy Directive 05.02.110 prisoners who are assigned to work and/or school shall be paid and/or receive stipends for the assignment. Pay rates for most positions range from approximately $0.74 to $3.34 per day depending on the classification of the job as unskilled or skilled. Students get paid a stipend of $0.54 per day to attend GED classes. With a satisfactory performance score the rate increases to $0.59. This translates into a monthly stipend of approximately $10.50 – $12 a month. With no other source of outside financial support that level of compensation is comparable to those who are indigent.
According to the PD, Unskilled Entry Daily Rates start at $0.74 and rise to $0.84 after 2 months. Semi-skilled rates start at $0.94 and are eligible for a 15% increase if the inmate possess the related certification, such as a porter who has completed the Custodial Maintenance Technology program on their current prefix. In other words, if you earned a CMT certificate the last time you were in prison you won’t be eligible to take the program again and won’t get credit for having taken it previously if assigned a position as a porter on your new bit. In other words, you’re qualified for the job but won’t be compensated for your knowledge because you were dumb enough to come back to prison. This is a major disincentive to working, but obviously not enough of a disincentive to keep a person from coming back to prison in the first place. It seems to me that the rules have been written in a way to exclude the maximum number of inmates from earning the higher pay scales in almost every job classification.
Skilled positions such as Tutor start at $1.24 per day with higher pay rates for having a college degree resulting in a maximum daily rate after two months of $3.34. Or least it used to be this way. In October 2018 the department changed its policy so that only college degrees in the specific field qualified for the higher rate. In other words, only those with a teaching degree who worked as a tutor would get the higher rate. My double major in Chemistry and Biology might no longer afford me the higher rate of compensation and I have no plan on returning to prison to find out.
The PD also has a few exceptions where inmates who have been in certain positions such as Food Service could continue to receive pay and bonuses if they started the work assignment prior to April 2008 when the pay structure was changed to eliminate the bonus. The catch is you must remain in the same assignment at the same facility and earn above average performance reviews. If the inmate is transferred to another facility, they would no longer be eligible for the bonus. The departments work around for this in 2008 was to transfer a significant number of Food Service workers. I came to prison after this happened, but I heard about how unhappy it made the workers to lose a bonus which allowed them to earn over $100 a month in some cases. My Level II bunkie was one of the few lucky ones who was still on the job and earning a bonus. He earned around $90 per month wiping down tables and mopping floors in the chow hall. He actually made more than I did working as a tutor with my college degree.
In February 2019, the clause in the Advanced Education/Training Pay Scale was applied to inmates working as clerk/facilitators for programs such as Sex Offender Programming (SOP). The result was that some of these inmates went from earning $3.34 to $1.77 per day. This is nearly a 50% pay cut. The PD does not provide the rationale behind the decision to reduce pay by specifying such a narrow definition of acceptable college credit as those “in a field of study related to the position.” Anyone that has completed an Associates or Bachelor’s Degree should have more than enough knowledge of basic reading, writing, arithmetic, science and history to work effectively as a GED tutor or serve as a clerk and perform the required tasks and responsibilities at a higher level of competency than those with a GED or high school diploma. I’m not sure how many library majors end up in prison but it’s good to know that they will be compensated at a higher rate for their knowledge of the Dewey Decimal System.
Pay scales for Braille Transcribing and MSI are not included in the PD but from what I remember the inmates working MBTF were paid piecemeal for the projects they work on. Different types of projects required certifications in different areas such as educational transcription, graphics, mathematical or musical notation and several other specific areas. The guys in my unit that worked at MBTF earned over $200 per month and could max out with the maximum annual MDOC allowed compensation. Not only that but many banked projects for when they were to be released from prison so that they could be paid at even higher rates so they could have money for their transition back into society. Not only that they would then be eligible for work as a professional braille transcriber out in the world. I wanted to apply for this program, but it required a minimum of 8 years before your ERD to even apply for the program and take the entrance exam. I believe that there were less than 20 jobs available in MBTF, so they account for less than a tenth of one percent of inmates. Right on the MBTF website they cite the low cost of prison labor as one of the reasons for their success.
MSI factories make everything from clothes to mattresses to printed forms and eyeglasses. There were factories making many various products at 10 prisons located all over the state. There was a factory at my first prison and those inmates could earn up to $200 per month. If there were large orders, there was also overtime on the weekends in order to complete them on time. The number of inmates employed by MSI is small, but I don’t know the number but it’s probably less than 2,000. MSI sells its products to jails and prisons across the country in addition to the MDOC facilities and the low labor cost is no doubt a competitive advantage over commercial companies they are in the market with.
All of this begs the question: Why when the cost of living always goes up is the MDOC reducing compensation for inmate labor? Commissary prices go up and many inmates can’t even afford basic hygiene items on what they are paid. Many don’t have outside support or owe so much in restitution, court costs, and fines that the department takes most of what their people put into their accounts. For some even their prison earnings are garnished if they have more than $50 in their account, so it doesn’t even pay to work. For the rest prison pay doesn’t buy much. The maximum amount that can be spent in the commissary is $100 every two weeks, which doesn’t mean anything if all you have is $12 to show for a month’s stipend as a student.
In some other states’ inmates are employed by private corporations and paid a living wage. A portion of their earnings are placed into a trust account to help them after they’re paroled. Another portion goes to paying down restitution, court costs, and fines. The rest is available to the inmate to spend. Prison is a pretty miserable place and being able to purchase a few items beyond the basic necessities goes a long way towards a positive mindset. And a positive mindset goes a long way toward rehabilitation. Low wages encourage theft since they have nothing to lose. Low wages mean hardship and deprivation that wear down the body and the mind which can lead to long term mental, emotional and physical problems that will last long after they are released.
Wages paid to inmates should not be a way for the department to make budget. That would literally be “penny wise and Pound foolish.” Cost of living is a factor in determining pay for everyone else, why shouldn’t it apply to inmates. If you want to send a message and “correct” inmates, then teach them the value of honest work. Nothing speaks to a person’s self worth more than compensation that respects the individual’s service. I don’t mean that inmates should be paid the state’s prevailing minimum wage but maybe bring in more factory jobs that pay like MSI and follow the model used by other states that allow inmates to save for the future. For in-house positions acknowledge the value of higher education, training, and experience to create a new pay scale that more adequately compensates inmates for the necessary functions that they perform. Being a miser and a cheapskate is not the way to rehabilitate human beings.