Next spring, New York State is issuing new license plates, and New Yorkers can now cast their vote for the new design. "License plates are a symbol of who we are as a state and New Yorkers should have a voice and a vote in its final design," Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a release. But the new license plates will still be produced by people incarcerated by the state, who earn an average wage of 65 cents an hour.
Roughly 2,100 prisoners work for Corcraft, which is "the ‘brand name’ for the Division of Correctional Industries,” operated by the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS). The prisoners make a variety of products, from hand soap dispensers to desks to pillows, and generate around $50 million in annual sales, mostly to local governments. The revenue goes to the state general fund.
Thomas Mailey, a spokesperson from DOCCS, confirmed that the new license plates will be made by prisoners working for Corcraft at the Auburn Correctional Facility.
"The production process itself will not be changing, however DOCCS has signed a contract with a new vendor Avery Dennison who will be supplying the sheeting for the new plates," Mailey said in a statement.
Drivers whose plates are more than ten years old will be required to purchase the new plates, which will cost $25, the maximum amount allowed under a law passed in 2009. The governor's office says that since the law’s implementation in 2010, the $25 fee has been paid 18 million times, and that all of the revenue from the plates will fund the state's highway, road, and bridge capital programs.
A bill sponsored by Brooklyn State Senator Zellnor Myrie to raise the minimum wage for prisoners to $3/hour stalled in committee. New York prisoners earn as little as 16 cents/hour, and as much as $1.14/hour. According to DOCCS, the average Corcraft inmate wage during the 2015 and 2016 fiscal year was 65 cents an hour, or around $1,092 per inmate per year. The state minimum wage ranges from $15/hour in New York City to $11.80/hour upstate.
Asked for the average wage of a prisoner at the license plate factory in Auburn, DOCCS directed a reporter to file a Freedom of Information Request.
Vote for your favorite New York State license plate design!
The winning design will become New York’s official license plate and be made available in April 2020.
— State of New York (@NYGov) August 19, 2019
"While there has been a very cute rollout—the license plate survey, and the options that will be available—you look at the fee that's going to be charged for you to replace your license plate, you're talking about three days wages for someone who made that license plate," Senator Myrie told Gothamist.
"My understanding is four of the five designs have the Statue of Liberty on it. We like to call ourselves the progressive capital of the nation and we are a leader in liberty, but when we have a situation where folks who have been denied their liberty but who are still working are doing so for slave wages, I think that is a conversation that needs to be had," Myrie said.
The senator added that the issue is "near and dear to me" because he taught constitutional law in Auburn Correctional Facility. Myrie said that the $3/hour wage proposed in his legislation was "the floor, and not the ceiling."
"We spoke to folks who were most impacted by this, formerly incarcerated folks, people who worked while in prison, and I think there is room for us to consider why they shouldn't be getting paid the same as other people who do this kind of work," he said.
Myrie noted that the governor's office hasn't weighed in on the issue.
"We hadn't heard anything from the second floor on this," Myrie said, referring to the executive offices of the capitol building. "I will note that the last time that the wage was raised was almost 25 years ago when Governor Mario Cuomo was at the helm. It is our hope that we can have a very serious discussion with the governor and with DOCCS about treating people fairly and having them compensated for the work that they do."
Governor Cuomo's office did not respond to Gothamist's questions about whether the governor supports raising wages for incarcerated New Yorkers. Cuomo, who outlined his legislative goals under the banner of a "Justice Agenda," did not respond to our queries on the issue in 2017.
When the Syracuse Post-Standard visited the plant in 2010, one of the inmates “called out that working on the line is ‘slave labor.’”
"The manufacture of license plates is one of those ironic things," said Alex Friedmann, the managing editor of Prison Legal News and associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center, a prisoners’ rights advocacy group. "You want people to learn skills that will help them stay out of prison once they get out. But you only make license plates in prison, and if that's the job skill you have, you can only use it if you return to prison."
Friedmann said that prisoners should be allowed to work, but should be treated like any other workers. Prison work programs are not subject to federal workplace safety regulations.
Friedmann added, "Prison labor needs to be an integral part of criminal justice reform. You can't reform the system while treating prisoners like slaves and paying slave wages."