When Will Vermont Address Our Prison-Wage Slavery?

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.

Town Meeting Day Brings A Toothless Housing Ballot Item

Last March, as cofounder of Fight for 15 Burlington, I helped city councilors put a nonbinding question on the ballot. At the time, I was incredibly proud – being able to affect such change, to help bring a better living standard to so many of my friends, coworkers, and neighbors. I was told that while the ballot question was incredibly vague and had no enforcement, it would help move the conversation forward on the state level.

Those arguments sounded good – and nearly every councilor voted for it, except the Republican and Republican/Democrat. It helped not only the progressive (small p) city councilors running for election and reelection, but even some of the Democratic councilors. And why not support it? No one had to make any concrete plans or promises, they didn’t have to take any political risks. Even Mayor Weinberger, although at first opposed, eventually came around to supporting the ballot item, likely because he also recognized how toothless and free of political risk the question was.

As the months went by, I thought that even though the ballot item was nonbinding, since it was supported by 75% of voters that Progressive councilors and Councilor Shannon (a vocal booster of the question) would recognize that there were concrete steps they could take in the following months while waiting for the state to raise the minimum wage. They could have expanded the livable wage ordinance, got rid of all the exemptions, could have taxed businesses over a certain size that don’t pay a livable wage, or at the very least had a public conversation about this on the local level. What did those councilors end up doing? Nothing.

In retrospect, while I felt embarrassed to have my name associated with pointless feelgood measures, it was an important learning lesson. When a ballot item or ordinance is supported by a majority of councilors, especially when supported by councilors who tend to be fairly fiscally or socially conservative, that is a good sign that the bill has no purpose, no teeth, and is really just meant for local politicians to look good without having to take any political risks.

So is the case with the new housing ballot item, and it may be no coincidence that just like the $15 ballot item, Councilor Knodell was the one to introduce it.

“Shall the voters of the city of Burlington in order to help the city’s nonprofit housing organizations build more affordable housing throughout the city, advise the city council to identify and adopt progressive local option revenues, the proceeds of which shall be used exclusively to benefit the city’s housing trust fund?”

During Monday’s council meeting, the question was changed to strike the specific tax language in lieu of the looser “local option revenues.” It passed on a vote of 9-3, with Councilors Kurt Wright, R-Ward 4, Dave Hartnett, I-North District, and Joan Shannon, D-South District, opposed.”

The only way I can see this ballot item having merit is if those who voted in favor of it promise, if citizens support it, to follow through. I’d love to be made wrong on this one.