Vermont is finally taking some first steps to address our slavery-supporting past. By focusing on the past, however, we continue to overlook our own state-sanctioned modern day slavery – Vermont’s barely-paid incarcerated workers.
State Senator Ingram, a lead sponsor of a bill to remove slavery from the state constitution, had this to say,
“I think we should remove slavery in the Vermont constitution because slavery is a morally reprehensible and antiquated institution, and it reflects badly on the state and it sends the wrong message, especially to people of color.”
When we look at state sanctioned slavery, this statement feels incredibly inadequate, foolishly ignorant of the overt and institutional racism currently within our own prison slavery system. While Vermont is only 1% black, incarcerated Vermonters are 9% black, a number that hasn’t changed in years. Wages for these incarcerated Vermonters haven’t changed in THIRTY YEARS, and they are paid on average between 25 and 40 cents PER HOUR.
If you worked 40 hours a week for an entire year, you would make a whopping $830. Per. Year. Their CEO, head of Department of Corrections, makes over $115,000 a year, or 140 times these workers’ pay. Is this not also morally reprehensible? Does this not reflect poorly on the state of Vermont?
This system, akin to slavery, has many repercussions. Incarcerated working Vermonters, disproportionally black, aren’t protected in the same ways that non-incarcerated Vermonters are, as it’s not clear if workers could form a union and strike. These workers can also be compensated in non-monetary ways, like reduced sentences, rates decided at the whim of their bosses. Imagine your boss one day deciding to pay you in Kit Kats instead of money! Lastly, these workers aren’t part of the Legislatures’ $15 an hour minimum wage bills, so they will be further left behind.
If elected officials are interested in meaningfully combatting both modern state-sponsored slavery and their after-affects, they should look at banning the box when it comes to rental housing. Formerly incarcerated Vermonters have few housing protections against discrimination, leaving many incarcerated inmates stuck in prison because there is no housing for them on the outside, a situation that has been ongoing for atleast 6 years.
On top of this, formerly incarcerated Vermonters don’t get any money when they finish their sentence and aren’t able to build credit in prison. Even if they work full time they leave prison broke and destitute.
If the state legislature is serious about ridding the state of slavery, in the past and present, there are many impactful ways to give formerly incarcerated prisoners a chance at succeeding. Banning state-sanctioned prison slavery, and requiring that incarcerated workers get paid atleast the state minimum, would be a better way to repair the damage we do to past and present slaves.