Colorado prisoners deserve more than sixty cents a day, inmate says

Under the newly re-gilted Capitol dome, lawmakers are debating budget cuts and trying to wrestle pork into and out of familiar barrels. It's unlikely, though, that any of them are losing sleep over one burning issue that's been a source of constant grumbling in places like Ordway, Sterling, and Buena Vista: the shockingly low, low pay rate for state prisoners. Over the past decade, despite inflation, boosts in the minimum wage, and even some progress in the general state of sweatshops, Colorado's fixed rate for most inmate jobs has remained the same: sixty cents a day.

Unless you happen to have a number stenciled on your shirt, this may be a matter of supreme indifference to you; some people are outraged at the idea that convicted felons earn anything at all while they're reaping the whirlwind. But Reggie Keyes figures it would be not just compassionate, but a smart investment for the state to consider boosting inmate pay.

Keyes, an adjudicated habitual criminal serving 24 years on menacing and contraband charges out of Bent County, recently passed along an impassioned plea to the legislature and Governor John Hickenlooper on the subject. Keyes points out that state inmates earned a magnificent two bucks a day for their labors in the 1980s and 1990s, before Governor Bill Owens pushed for the sixty-cent-a-day cap. That not only drastically reduced the amount that inmates could pay in court-ordered fees and victim restitution -- the Colorado Department of Corrections takes 20 percent off the top of the paycheck for that -- but it made it harder for many to make ends meet, since the cost of canteen items such as toothpaste and shampoo continues to rise.

"Our current inflated canteen prices leave about two-thirds of Colorado's inmate population in dire poverty," Keyes writes.

Less than 10 percent of Colorado's inmate population actually work in Colorado Correctional Industries, which manufactures furniture and bedding and offers vocational programs to inmates. Others have menial jobs in kitchens or as porters. But there aren't enough full-time jobs to go around, Keyes says: "Many are forced to survive on half pay or indigent pay, which amounts to only three to five dollars a month. Further, we are charged by DOC three dollars for every medical request and ten dollars for any emergency. We are rationed three rolls of toilet paper each month, which requires extreme conservation, or forces us to purchase at least one fifty-cent roll from the canteen each month. Which leaves us very little for canteen necessities such as basic hygiene, a few stamps and a pen and a tablet and envelopes. Since 2004 it has been our families that have been punished for our imprisonment and that have been burdened to provide for our care."

Traditionally, lawmakers and prison officials have been reluctant to expand opportunities for prison jobs, out of concerns about undercutting the private sector as well as historic exploitation of prison labor in the Deep South. But recidivism studies in several states suggest that prisoners who are given the opportunity to work in correctional industry programs are better equipped to find employment and less likely to return to prison. Programs like Colorado's are also largely self-sustaining and can even generate income for the state.

Keyes notes that he's banned from submitting a petition to Governor Hickenlooper concerning the lack of jobs and the pathetic pay rate. "We are prohibited from petitioning, organizing or assembly, because such is construed as a violation of the Colorado Code of Penal Discipline or as inciting a riot. But I would have no problem obtaining twenty to thirty thousand signatures from Colorado's imprisoned and impoverished."

More from our Prison Life archive circa January 3: "Is Colorado keeping inmates past their release dates?"

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast