It’s astonishing that Borough President Markowitz has gotten away with using prison labor for so long. The prisoners set up and take down the chairs for his Seaside Park and Wingate Field summer concerts and are used solely because they provide cheap labor. Minimum wage is currently $7.25 an hour, but incarcerated people are paid only a few cents per hour.
His use of prison labor dates back to 1990. Singer Curtis Mayfield was badly injured that year in a Wingate Field accident. He was paralyzed from the neck down and sued Markowitz’s insurance company. Markowitz also lost one of his concert sponsors because of the mishap. All of a sudden, he needed to reduce concert expenses, and prison labor was an easy way to accomplish that.
Instead of using incarcerated people, neighborhood residents, especially young people, should be given the opportunity to earn a few bucks by helping to set up the concerts. It’s not easy nowadays for a teen or young adult to find summer employment. People who have disabilities would also welcome the opportunity to work at a neighborhood job.
There are certainly ways to fund such a program. Some concert seats are sold to the public for a $5 fee. Also, throughout the evening, concert staff walk around with large plastic buckets, calling out, “Please help the concert series!” As the buckets make their way through the crowds, people stuff them with cash. Considering the size of the crowds attending the concerts, it’s reasonable to assume that a sizable sum is collected each evening. These funds could be set aside to pay local residents to set up and take down the chairs.
What about the concert sponsors? At some of the concerts, sponsors provide a catered party for the VIPs. Wouldn’t it be better if they funded a few part-time, neighborhood jobs instead? Some large corporations even have programs where employees volunteer to work on community projects. Corporate volunteers could help set up the chairs alongside local youth and then serve as their mentors throughout the year. This would substantially reduce the costs and increase the benefits. There is no limit as to what could be accomplished with a little imagination.
Using cheap prison labor to set up concerts does not contribute anything to our neighborhoods. It is time for Borough President Markowitz to consider alternatives that benefit our communities.
Ida Sanoff is a Brighton Beach resident and community activist.