Inmate Pay

Inmate Pay: Connecticut prisoners are making $1.75 a day. (August 21, 2012)

Once in a while, the state of Connecticut knows a good deal when it sees it. Take the miniscule money it’s paying prison inmates to help clean up litter on the side of state highways.

Those dudes are getting $1.75 a day each. The state Department of Transportation is now using 66 inmates (broken into 28 crews) each weekday to remove roadside trash that would otherwise be picked up by state workers.

The total estimated cost for those prison inmate litter picker-uppers is a whopping $27,720 a year – which is less than half the average yearly salary for Connecticut state workers. When inmates aren’t picking up the trash, state employees are, which accounts for most of the approximately $2 million a year the DOT spends on litter removal.

“It’s a good program for us,” admits DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick. “Obviously you can’t get [non-prison] labor at those costs.”

In fact, the DOT is paying what passes for the state of Connecticut’s top-dollar wage for the inmates assigned to trash removal.

The standard corrections pay scale in this state was set in 2002:

-75 cents per day for routine low-level, unskilled work.

-$1.25 per day for more skilled employment that require some training and experience.

-$1.75 for jobs needing “specialized and technical training, which would normally require certification or licensure, or for assignments normally reimbursed from outside sources.”

In case you’re wondering how those pay scales were set, Michael Lawlor says it relates back to “the good old days when inmate worker compensation was a pack of cigarettes for a day’s work.”

Lawlor, who is Gov. Dannel Malloy’s top criminal justice advisor, says that prison officials picked the .75 cents-to-$1.75 pay range when smoking was banned in Connecticut prisons. At the time, those levels of compensation were something close to what a pack of smokes might cost, according to Lawlor.

Picking up bottles and greasy McDonald’s burger wrappers from the side of the highway doesn’t seem to qualify for “specialized and technical training,” but the top-of-the-scale money for those inmates does come from the DOT - a source outside the state Department of Corrections.

The corrections agency itself spent $1,743,316 last year on pay for about 5,900 inmates, according to department spokesman Brian Garnett. “The bulk of them make 75 cents a day,” he adds.

A 2011 state legislative research study reported that 8,317 Connecticut inmates were getting the lowest level pay for the work they were ordered to do, another 1.814 inmates received the mid-level pay, and 1,066 got the big bucks at $1.75 per day.

There are a couple of other, much better paying state inmate programs.

One is the “Correctional Enterprises of Connecticut” operation, which pumps out state license plates, signs, plastic bags, plaques, clothing, pillows, re-upholstered furniture, as well as some data entry and processing. Inmates on those types of jobs can pull down between 30-cents-per-hour and a munificent $1.50 an hour.

Those are also the same wages that inmates working in prison commissaries can make. Garnett says the corrections agency spent $477,960 on Correction Enterprises of Connecticut about 350 inmate workers last year.

The commissaries are the stores where inmates can spend the money they make on stuff like toiletries, food items, hair-curling irons. “It’s not,” says Lawlor. “It’s pretty basic.”

Total commissary sales in 2009-10 amounted to $14.6 million. A little added bonus for the state is that it got about $261,000 in sales taxes from its inmates that year.