Passage of Proposal Two will Allow Prisoners to Serve as Volunteers

Voters can decide Tuesday, Nov. 3

Charities across the state are hoping for a sizable donation when New Yorkers head to the voting booths on Election Day—access to a previously untapped pool of nearly 90,000 volunteers.

If passed, Proposal Two on the New York state ballot would clear the way for inmates in state and local facilities to work for charitable nonprofits for the first time since 2005. (Editor’s addition on Nov. 4: Proposal Two approved by voters.)

The idea has drawn widespread approval from charities, prisoners’ rights advocates and the state Department of Correctional Services.

“We think it would be a positive step forward,” said Robert Gangi, executive director of the Correctional Associate of New York, a nonprofit prison advocacy group. “Keeping incarcerated people productively occupied helps keep prisons safer and more manageable, and can help incarcerated people develop skills that will benefit them after they’re released.”

Tom Mitchell, counsel for the New York State Sheriff’s Association, called it a “correctional tool for good behavior.”

“Inmates like it because instead of sitting around watching TV or playing cards, they get to go out,” he said.

There are about 30,000 people in county jails and about 60,000 people in state prisons, according to statistics from the state Commission on Corrections.

None of them are allowed to provide labor for any group besides the government, but that has not always been the case.

Until 2005, Mitchell said, sheriffs often had inmates work for nonprofits as well as for the government.

In September 2005, though, the state Commission of Correction disallowed the practice in a legal memo. Jails and prisons, it wrote, were not to “make any contract by which the labor or time of any inmate … is let, farmed out, given or sold to any person, firm, association or corporation.” Such contracts, it held, violated the state constitution.

Proposal Two, if passed, would not amend the constitution. Rather, it would send the issue to the state legislature, which approved it in 2007 and 2009, allowing it onto the ballot.

It would also be up to the legislature to add in the details, such as which prisoners and nonprofits would be eligible.

DOCS spokesman Erik Kriss pointed out that more than 95 percent of inmates in jails and prisons eventually return to society. The DOCS supports Proposal Two, he said, because it helps them become “a productive member of society.”

“Any kind of work that inmates can do while incarcerated is a benefit not only to themselves, but to society,” Kriss said.

Working outside of prison would be one of several options available to inmates, most of whom are required to do some work, Kriss said. They would be paid the same nominal wage earned by inmates working inside prisons, less than 50 cents an hour.

Alison Coleman, director of Prison Families of New York, said that “the prison family community statewide would be very much for” the legislation.

One former state inmate, however, cautioned that the devil lies in the details.

Ray Barnes spent 28 years in prison for murder. He now works as a case manager at the Center for Community Alternatives, a nonprofit group that promotes alternatives to incarceration and provides support to released inmates.

Barnes said it would be impossible to judge the proposal until all the rules were laid out.

“It’s going to be important to know who’s eligible,” Barnes said. “The people who would really benefit are the men and women who have done a lot of time and have an idea of the direction in which they want to go.”

One area of concern is inmates’ safety while they work. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which regulates workplace safety, does not provide protection to DOCS work crews or any other volunteer workers.

In 2000, an inmate at minimum security Mt. McGregor Correctional Facility was fatally electrocuted while painting a church near Saratoga Springs when the metal ladder he was using touched a power line.

Whether the bill gets to the legislature for fine-tuning will be up to voters Tuesday. None of the people interviewed for this story were aware of any organized opposition to the proposal.

“It could be a wonderful piece of architecture for re-entry,” Coleman said. “There are a lot of really smart prisoners who want to make amends and who have a lot to offer.”

— Story by Justin Daniel Murphy, a Syracuse University graduate student in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications