Simmons introduces the Real Labor, Real Wages Act to end ‘slavery loophole’ in Washington State

OLYMPIA – Today, Rep. Tarra Simmons (D-Bremerton) introduced the Real Labor, Real Wages Act to require that incarcerated workers in Washington prisons be paid minimum wage. Currently, people incarcerated in the Washington Department of Corrections are generally paid less than $1 per hour for their work. The 13th Amendment of the US Constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude except for “punishment for crime.” This is often referred to as the ‘slavery loophole.’ A recent report from the American Civil Liberties Union found that around 800,000 incarcerated people are forced to work for wages ranging from $0.52 per hour to nothing, generating roughly $11 billion annually in goods and services.

“When I was incarcerated, I was forced to work graveyard shifts for less than $0.42 per hour,” said Simmons. “If you refused, you would be sent to solitary confinement or threatened with infractions that could lengthen your sentence or restrict your ability to participate in educational or recreational programs. No one should be coerced into providing their labor, and Washington should not profit from involuntary servitude. This bill recognizes the fundamental humanity of incarcerated people and rejects the use of slavery as a punishment.”

The Real Labor, Real Wages Act would prohibit the Department of Corrections from using infractions or punitive actions to coerce incarcerated people into working. It would also require that incarcerated people are paid no less that the state minimum wage. Finally, the bill modifies the amounts of deductions automatically imposed on incarcerated people’s income, eliminating the deduction for the cost of incarceration and creating a new personal savings account.

While wages in prisons have been locked in place for decades, the prices charged to incarcerated workers have not. Whether toothpaste or ibuprofen to get through the workday, incarcerated workers are expected to pay market rates, while being paid less than $1 per hour. At the Monroe Correctional Complex, Western Washington’s largest prison, the cost of toothpaste recently was raised from $3.85 to $6.10. At the average wage paid for work at Monroe, it takes 14 hours for an incarcerated worker to afford a tube of toothpaste.

“This bill will end involuntary servitude in Washington State and effectively close the ‘slavery loophole,’ said Simmons. “Not only will Washington live up to our ideals and rid itself of a relic of slavery, but by creating personal savings accounts and requiring minimum wage, we will be setting those who choose to work up for success once they return to their community.”

Additionally, the bill directs DOC to submit a report to the Legislature examining the services incarcerated persons are charged for, the average debts owed by an incarcerated person to DOC, the average percentage of costs paid for by an incarcerated person prior to release, and the average debts owed by an incarcerated person upon release.

Pre-filing of bills for the 2023 legislative session began on Monday, December 5th. The 2023 legislative session begins on Monday, January 9th.