New Colorado law requires minimum wage for some prison laborers

The law also removes a section in state statute that says “every able-bodied inmate shall be put to and kept at” work


By Alex Burness
The Denver Post
        
DENVER — A new state law signed Wednesday commands that many Colorado prison laborers must be paid at least minimum wage — a massive change for a scheme that historically has paid laborers mere cents per day.

SB22-50, which Gov. Jared Polis signed at a small ceremony at the Capitol, promises minimum wage only for those prisoners who participate in day-release programs that allow them to work off-site though the Department of Corrections’ Take TWO (Transitional Work Opportunity) program. There are about 100 people employed in Take TWO now, spread across about 20 different employers. Each of these people is close to their release date.

But they represent a silver of the nearly 16,000 prisoners in the state, and bill sponsor Sen. James Coleman, a Denver Democrat, said the new law is a first step to making sure all prison laborers make at least minimum wage.

Limon Correctional Facility about 80 miles east of Denver is an all male, Level IV facility.
Limon Correctional Facility about 80 miles east of Denver is an all male, Level IV facility. (RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

“The goal is for me to follow up with the (Department of Corrections) on a bill next year to see how we increase the minimum wage for all folks that are incarcerated, including those who are inside DOC and not just being contracted,” he said.

The director of the DOC, Dean Williams, has spoken often about wanting to make the state’s prisons more humane and more supportive of successful rehabilitation. Colorado’s three-year recidivism rate for people released from the DOC has been hovering around 50%. Coleman and Williams are in agreement about how important it is for incarcerated people to have financial stability once they’re released.

“If someone is going to be successful leaving prison and not fall victim to recidivism, they’re gonna need a job,” said Delta Rep. Matt Soper, a Republican who sponsored SB22-50. “This bill allows them to save up some of those funds so they’re successful upon re-entry.”

But that’s not the only reason for the wage hike, Coleman said, adding that it’s also about granting a bit of dignity to prisoners who have for decades been treated in state statute as laborers to help produce profits, more than people deserving of support. The new law removes a section that read, “All persons convicted of any crime and confined in any state correctional facilities under the laws of this state, except such as are precluded by the terms of the judgment of conviction, shall perform labor.”

Another now-removed section of state law said, “every able-bodied inmate shall be put to and kept at” work.

Coleman said the DOC knows “it’s a bad look” that prison laborers outside of Take TWO are still generally paid such little money.

State Rep. Leslie Herod, also a Denver Democrat, said SB22-50 “goes beyond what I’ve ever seen the DOC do in the past.”

She added, “It pays them a real wage. It’s not a chain gang. When I came in I saw offenders literally building prisons for other inmates. We needed to revamp the program and I’m glad that Dean has committed to it.”

The new law also removes the requirement for Colorado Correctional Industries, the state prison labor enterprise, to be profitable. Before SB22-50, state law required the Department of Corrections “provide programs which are profit-oriented, which generate revenue for their operation and capital investment, and which partly reimburse the general fund for the use of inmate labor for the expense of adult correctional services.”

The profit-making plan hasn’t been working, as Colorado Correctional Industries, has been operating several million dollars in the red, prompting discussion of program shut-downs and downsizings in order to meet financial obligations. The losses are no longer a problem in the eyes of state law.

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