By Kenia Miranda Verdugo

The importance of providing incarcerated individuals with meaningful education, skill-building, and paid opportunities with livable wages has gained recognition in recent years. 

Such paid programs not only benefit the individuals involved, but also they have far-reaching positive impacts on society. Looking to examples set by states like Maine and Colorado, California has a valuable opportunity to embrace and expand upon paid initiatives for the benefit of incarcerated individuals and the state.

Presently, approximately 40% of California’s 96,000 incarcerated individuals hold jobs while they serve out their sentences, according to a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) spokesperson. These jobs include doing laundry and janitorial work, as well as clerking and construction. The wages generally range from $0.08/hour to $0.37/hour, depending on the skill level required for the job. 

With low wages and limited skill building opportunities, California’s justice-impacted individuals have a difficult time translating their incarcerated work experience into post-release employment opportunities. 

Pioneering Initiatives in Maine and Colorado

Maine and Colorado have been at the forefront of pioneering programs that provide incarcerated individuals with paid opportunities. Partnerships between the Department of Corrections and nonprofit organizations enable justice-impacted individuals in these states to pursue remote fellowships, job placements, professor positions, and roles as GED teachers. 

Skill Development, Resume Building, and Recognizing the Dignity of Incarcerated Individuals 

As Maine and Colorado have learned, providing paid opportunities for incarcerated individuals results in skill development, valuable work experience, and a sense of purpose and responsibility. These experiences not only prepare participants for successful reentry into society, but also they reduce the likelihood of recidivism.

Additionally, paid programs help to restore a sense of self-worth and agency to incarcerated individuals—individuals who often feel marginalized or forgotten by society. The programs also help to eliminate slave labor within the prison system and reinforce the reality that people with lived experience bring value to our society and workforce. 

Cost Savings and Societal Benefits

From the lens of society as a whole, offering paid opportunities for incarcerated individuals has the potential to generate significant cost savings for the state. By reducing recidivism rates and helping individuals become productive members of society upon release, paid programs alleviate the burden on the criminal justice system and taxpayer dollars. 

Providing a Lifeline for Families and Fostering More Equitable Futures in California

There is immense potential to emulate the successes seen in Maine and Colorado in the Golden State. By expanding access to remote fellowships, job placements, professor positions, and GED teaching roles, California can equip incarcerated individuals with the tools they need to succeed during their incarceration and upon release.

Providing paid opportunities for incarcerated individuals also offers a lifeline to their families. Many incarcerated individuals are the primary breadwinners, which means their incarceration creates financial strain and a source of instability for loved ones. By earning a livable wage while incarcerated, individuals have an opportunity to support their families, ensuring their loved ones have access to basic necessities. 

The benefits of providing paid opportunities with livable wages for incarcerated individuals in California are clear. Not only do the programs offer valuable skill development and resume-building opportunities, but they also promote dignity, reduce recidivism, and generate cost savings for the state. By following the examples set by Maine and Colorado, California can unlock the potential of incarcerated individuals and pave the way for a brighter, more equitable future.

Michelson 20MM is a private, nonprofit foundation working toward equity for underserved and historically underrepresented communities by expanding access to educational and employment opportunities, increasing affordability of educational programs, and ensuring the necessary supports are in place for individuals to thrive. To do so, we work in the following verticals: Digital Equity, Intellectual Property, Smart Justice, Student Basic Needs, and Open Educational Resources (OER). Co-chaired and funded by Alya and Gary Michelson, Michelson 20MM is part of the Michelson Philanthropies network of foundations.

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