Bill to pay incarcerated workers minimum wage passes House Community Safety, Justice, & Reentry Committee

Olympia- The Real Labor, Real Wages Act, which would mandate that incarcerated workers are paid state minimum wage, cleared its first legislative hurdle today when it was voted out of the House Community Safety, Justice, & Reentry Committee with a vote of 6-3. Sponsored by Rep. Tarra Simmons (D-Bremerton), the first formerly incarcerated legislator in the United States, HB 1024 would make Washington the first state in the nation to pay its incarcerated population minimum wage.

“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. For me, the possible loss of privileges meant that I would not be able to see my children, who visited every weekend,” said Simmons. “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 acknowledges that most of them will one day return to our communities.”

In addition to requiring minimum wage, The Real Labor, Real Wages Act would prohibit the Department of Corrections from using infractions or punitive actions to coerce incarcerated people into working. The bill also modifies the amounts of deductions automatically imposed on incarcerated people’s income. These changes include doubling the amount sent to the crime victims’ compensation fund, doubling the amount that can be withheld for child support, and increasing the amount that can be deposited in personal savings accounts which cannot be accessed until release from DOC custody.

The bill was heard in committee on Tuesday, January 10. The hearing featured testimony from several current and formerly incarcerated people via the Legislature’s remote testimony system.

“Exploitation of the prisoner is exploitation of their families. It takes us upwards of three hours of prison labor to make one twenty-minute phone call; therefore leaving our family with that burden,” said Anthony Covert, a member of the Black Prisoners’ Caucus incarcerated at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.

“I see this bill as an opportunity to change the lives of children who have a parent in prison. I was a father of young children when I was sentenced to forty years in prison. During my incarceration, I could not support my children with basic child support or with the extra things that children with incarcerated parents go without, like having money to play sports, enrolling in driver’s ed, musical instruments, school supplies, and clothes, and so much more. This bill would give parents living inside our prisons the ability to help with the financial needs of their children and to help them maintain connections with their children…..Data shows that children of incarcerated parents have a 7 out of 10 chance of ending up in the system, but if parents can stay actively involved in their children’s lives, it greatly reduces that risk,” said James Chambers.

The bill now heads to the House Appropriations Committee.