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About those license plates: New York needs to pay prisoners more for producing them, and for their other labor


One of New York's newly proposed license plate designs. (New York State Governor's Office)

Last week, New York announced a statewide survey to determine the design of the state’s new official license plate. New Yorkers will have the opportunity to choose from five designs, including several prominently displaying one of our state’s most treasured and recognizable monuments, the Statue of Liberty.

The survey was rolled out with much fanfare, generating both lighthearted commentary about the inclusion of the Mario M. Cuomo Bridge on one option and bipartisan concern over the fiscal implications. What has been conspicuously absent from this conversation, however, is the question that few ask and even fewer have the answer to: Where do these license plates come from and who makes them?

To the surprise of many, the answer is our prisons. Auburn Correctional Facility, one of the oldest prisons in the nation, manufactures all of New York’s license plates. Corcraft, the company that is the “preferred source” of the Department of Corrections (meaning, they do not partake in the competitive bidding process), employs individuals serving sentences there to make the plates. Corcraft produces many other products for the state and makes nearly $48 million in revenue annually.

Yet those serving sentences in Auburn — whose labor, funded through taxpayer dollars, generates the company’s revenue — do not earn what similarly situated workers earn. They do not earn a minimum wage. In fact, many workers make less than 50 cents an hour.

So, we must ask ourselves, in a state that prides itself on leading the nation, and one that aims to place the Statue of Liberty on every motor vehicle: How we find it acceptable to treat workers so poorly? How do we justify using the sweat and hard work of the incarcerated to the tune of millions while paying them sub-sweatshop wages?

Incarcerated individuals don’t only make license plates; they also produce scores of highway signs, mattresses, classroom furniture and file cabinets.

The wage disparity remains the same across the board: State law allows these workers to be severely underpaid because they are incarcerated, all but helping ensure that they will be consigned to poverty if and when they manage to get out of prison.

Work is work. Individuals serving time in prison deserve to be paid wages commensurate with work elsewhere, period. To reject this premise is to accept that some in our society should provide mandatory free-to-low cost labor for everyone else’s benefit, a concept this country rejected after much bloodshed and political compromise.

Additionally, our “corrections” system is, ostensibly, intended to rehabilitate individuals who have made mistakes. Adequately compensating those who work while incarcerated goes a long way in doing this. It not only provides dignified work, it provides greater resources for re-entry into their communities upon release.

Earlier this year, I, along with Assemblyman Nick Perry, introduced legislation to increase the wages of these workers. We, along with our colleagues in both houses, viewed this is as but a first step, however, and we are in discussions with those most impacted, their advocates and other stakeholders to improve create a larger conversation around worker rights for the incarcerated.

All of us are hopeful that one day our state will live up to its ideals by paying workers — regardless of their incarcerated status — what they deserve. Until then, as you are voting on New York’s new official license plate, remember the workers whowill be responsible for making them. Consider that many of them will be making less money in an eight-hour shift than the price of your coffee this morning.

Then ask yourself what matters more: The design of the plate, or the lives of those who produce them?

Myrie represents Sunset Park, Brownsville and other neighborhoods in the state senate. He taught constitutional law at Auburn Correctional Facility in 2014.