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My Life Sewing T-Shirts for 26 Cents an Hour

You might think I work outside the U.S., beyond the reach of our labor laws. You’d be wrong.

Illustration by Clay Rodery

At 5 a.m., I’m awoken by the bell and roll over to turn on my light so the corrections officer can see that I’m alive. After the C.O. finishes the morning count, I start getting ready for work. My cell opens around 6:40 a.m., and I make my way up a steep set of stairs to the mess hall for a breakfast that consists of lukewarm, lumpy oatmeal and toast. Then it’s out the main building to the warehouse to start my day at the tailor shop. With its gray concrete walls and giant, industrial-size windows, the place gives me the feeling that this institution has been here for a long time and will be here long after I’m gone.

From 7:20 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., I sit at a sewing machine putting collars on T-shirts, one after another. I get paid 26 cents an hour. With these wages, you would think that this warehouse is located outside the United States, beyond the reach of our labor laws, but my work site is the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York—the state’s largest prison. It’s the same prison where two inmates escaped in 2015. I’m working at one of the very same tailor shops where they worked. It’s part of Corcraft, the market name for goods produced in the New York State Department of Corrections. Corcraft manufactures and distributes items made by prisoners like me who get paid extremely low wages, far less than a person can live on. Still, our labor is big business: According to the Office of the New York State Comptroller, Corcraft reported $53 million in revenue in 2019.

Corcraft says its mission is to “teach a good work ethic and valuable work skills.” I find that statement funny, as most of the tailor shop supervisors can’t show you how to work the industrial sewing machines. I’ve seen supervisors turn to inmates for help fixing everything from fabric snags to broken equipment.

In addition to unskilled supervisors, the Black inmates can’t help but notice the preferential treatment toward the white inmates, which adds to the depressing atmosphere. If you look around the prison, you’ll see the C.O.s are almost entirely white.

One day in the tailor shop, I watched as a white inmate said he did not want to do his work assignment, which was sewing arms on T-shirts. The supervisor let him pick a job he wanted to do instead. He folded T-shirts that day.

Meanwhile, Black inmates are given “keeplock” time—where you’re made to stay in your cell for 23 hours a day—for perceived infractions as small as talking back to instructors. In 2016, a New York Times investigation found that Black inmates at Clinton were almost four times as likely to be put in isolation as whites and were held there longer, on average. From discipline to job duties, the article documents in detail what we see every day: The New York Department of Corrections is saturated in racism.

This isn’t an accident—the conditions of my labor are rooted in American slavery. Just look to the Thirteenth Amendment: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” When a supervisor asks me how I am, I tell them that as long as I’m made to do slave labor, I can never be OK.

Bring this up to a supervisor though, and they’ll give you a look of confusion and anger: This kind of response makes a lot of sense. Dannemora is a prison town—it is not uncommon for three generations from the same family to be working here. If your livelihood is dependent on the exploitation of other people, then exploitation starts to feel normal. They’ve become desensitized to it.

Though I’m working against my will, I’m told almost every day that 26 cents an hour is considered good, since the tailor shop is the highest-paying job in the facility. Recently we pushed out eight boxes of long johns, and I was given a 3 cent raise. Am I supposed to be grateful?