The nationwide average for incarcerated individuals is $0.14 per hour.
A new law is aiming to set Arizona’s minimum wage for incarcerated individuals to $3 per hour, nearly double what the average maximum wage for prisoners is throughout the country.
Arizona’s existing law is currently in line with the national average for paying prisoners, with a maximum wage established at $1.50 per hour. While some jobs have exceptions, such as fundraising for veterans or certain contracted labor, the Arizona Republic recently reported that most prisoners are making far less than the maximum.
Low wages leave many prisoners with a small amount saved and few prospects for a successful life after incarceration. For instance, John Fabricius, a prisoner in Arizona for 15 years, was only able to save $250 by the time of his release in 2018.
“When I came out, I didn’t have a place to live,” Fabricius told the Arizona Republic. “If not for the kindness of a couple of my friends who had been through the Department of Corrections, there’s not a chance in hell I would’ve made it.”
A proposed bill by Rep. Kirsten Engel, D-Tucson, aims to give inmates an extra leg up once they’re out. HB 2556 would remove the current maximum wage of $1.50 for most prisoners and replace it with a $3 minimum wage for all employed inmates.
“The prison minimum wage idea really came out of my shock at learning how poorly paid these prisoners are for the work that they do,” Engel said. “Yes, these are prisoners. No, they’re not paying for housing. But these are people who are providing what is obviously a valuable service.”
Engel introduced her minimum wage bill along with another piece of legislation focused on working conditions for prisoners: HB 2552. If passed, it would require employers to report injuries sustained by prisoners while on the job. Currently, there are no reporting requirements for prisoner injuries in the workplace.
As a result, the lack of oversight has resulted in multiple prisoners receiving serious injuries while employed at Hickman’s Farms, as reported by the Phoenix New Times. The report detailing broken bones, finger mutilation, and limb decapitation led Engel to craft HB 2552.
“The state did not have a record of them, because there was no requirement for the employer to report those injuries,” she said. “It seems like we should know when (prisoners) are injured or even worse, die, as a result of a workplace incident.”
But despite her insistence that both bills are necessary, Engels admits that neither is likely to become law while Republicans hold a majority in both chambers of the Arizona Legislature. While Republicans like Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, have supported other prison reform bills this session, none have commented publicly on Engel’s proposals.
As of this reporting, neither bill has been added to a committee agenda or received a hearing on the House floor.