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Prison Labor: Positive Programming or Modern-day Slavery?

by Christopher Zoukis

Prisoners in most jurisdictions in the United States are required to work, often for little or no pay. Yet this is neither illegal nor unconstitutional. Pretrial detainees who have not been convicted of a crime cannot be forced to work. But the federal Fair Labor Standards Act does not apply to convicted prisoners, who are not considered employees – because the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

Most jurisdictions that compel prisoner labor are not trying to profit from it, and are instead content simply to count the labor costs saved. Florida’s Department of Corrections, for example, counted 6.6 million hours of prisoner labor on community projects in 2016 that saved taxpayers an estimated $59 million. Governor Rick Scott was elected in 2010 with a promise to save another $1 billion by using prisoners to provide services – including growing their own food.

But in other cases prisoners are employed at wages far below market rates to provide goods and services to other government agencies and even private companies. UNICOR, the trade name of Federal Prison Industries, run by the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), employs about 10,800 prisoners at rates ranging from $0.12 to $1.15 per hour. Selling mostly to other government agencies, it produced enough eyewear, road signs, mattresses, body armor and other products to gross $500 million in sales in 2016 – though UNICOR reported an operating loss that year. The waiting list for prisoners to get into the program is long, since even with its low wages it pays more than most other prison jobs.

At the state level, California prisoners produced revenues of $232 million in 2017 by providing work that ranged from construction services to producing textiles – even $10 million in meat cutting. Idaho prisoners roast potatoes. Kentucky prisoners raise cattle; in New Jersey, they milk cows. They raise tilapia in Virginia and pheasants in New York. In Hawaii, through the Correctional Industries program, prisoners scan documents into digital files.

Though slightly different from one another, these work programs have one thing in common: Participating prisoners earn very little for their labor.

About 100,000 prisoners work in so-called “industry programs” nationwide, mostly manufacturing goods used within the prison system or sold to other government agencies. About 5,000 of those prisoners provide labor for private companies. Such work assignments, through Prison Industry Enhancement (PIE) programs, pay at least the federal minimum wage – though up to 80% of prisoners’ pay can be deducted for room and board, restitution, taxes and mandatory savings. [See: PLN, Mar. 2010, p.1].

But most of the nation’s 2.3 million prisoners perform menial tasks such as working in the kitchen or laundry, or serving as janitors or on yard crews. In five states – Texas, Florida, Arkansas, Alabama and Georgia – they are paid nothing. In the rest of the country they earn hourly wages ranging from $.04 in West Virginia to a maximum of $2.00 in New Jersey – well below the $7.25 per hour federal minimum wage for most non-incarcerated workers.

Worse, according to Wendy Sawyer, an analyst with the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative, research shows the average wages for prisoners have actually fallen since the beginning of the century.

In the federal system, prison labor is governed by the “Inmate Work and Performance Pay” program, which states that “[s]entenced inmates who are physically and mentally able to work are required to participate in work programs.” Although the BOP pays prisoners for their labor, UNICOR points to savings on their wages as part of a win-win scenario: Prisoners allegedly gain marketable job skills while saving taxpayers money.

However, according to Professor Heather Thompson at the University of Michigan, “The vast majority of prison labor is not even cloaked in the idea of rehabilitation.”

For example, after Louisiana began releasing prisoners to reduce the state’s incarceration rate, which is one of the highest in the world, Caddo Parrish Sheriff Steve Prator made no effort to hide his frustration at the threat posed to his captive workforce.

“The [prisoners] that you can work, the ones that can pick up trash, the work-release programs, ... guess what? Those are the ones that they’re releasing!” Prator said during a press conference in October 2017. “In addition to the bad ones ... they’re releasing some good ones that we use every day to wash cars, to change the oil in our cars, to cook in the kitchen ... well, they’re going to let them out!”

Yet there are some prison work programs that really do aim to provide prisoners with marketable skills that may ease the re-entry process after their release. The Folsom Women’s Facility near Sacramento runs a center that trains prisoners in computer systems. Operated under the auspices of California’s Prison Industry Authority (PIA), the program is sponsored by the software company Autodesk.

“These offenders are getting out, and getting jobs, so the savings is [sic] huge,” said Charles Pattillo, PIA’s general manager. “They’re not coming back into the system.”

Another labor program that provides training for prisoners is the Serving Time Cafe in Draper, Utah, staffed by offenders from the Olympus Facility at the Utah State Prison. While learning how to cook and serve restaurant food, they also earn the “relatively big bucks it pays – $1.65 an hour,” according to Supervisor Carolyn Price, who emphasized that the program is designed to help prisoners with their return to society.

“A lot of them have low self-esteem,” Price said. “But here, they can see what they are capable of. I try and encourage them and say, ‘Look what you’ve done.’”

After Silicon Valley venture capitalist Chris Redlitz visited the state prison at San Quentin in 2010, he created The Last Mile – a non-profit that provides instruction in business start-ups and website coding, paying prisoners up to $17 hourly. Tulio Cardozo, an early participant in the program, finished a five-year sentence on drug charges and landed a position as a lead developer in a tech startup in San Francisco. [See: PLN, Feb. 2018, p.20].

More commonly, though, prisoners in the U.S. are singled out for exploitation of their labor – a practice dating back to the mid-19th century, when, during Reconstruction following the Civil War, southern states enacted Black Codes, such as vagrancy laws, and arrested and imprisoned newly-freed slaves to use them as a source of cheap prison labor.

In April 2018, Louisiana’s House of Representatives passed legislation that specifically authorizes Department of Public Safety and Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc to utilize prisoners to perform janitorial services at his department headquarters. Of the 92 state representatives who voted on the law, the seven who dissented were all black. As one of them, state Rep. Ted James, said: “We’re doing something that I think is just morally out of place.”

The same could be said of many work programs that exploit prisoners’ labor. 

Sources: Sacramento Bee, Salt Lake City Tribune, Los Angeles Times, The Economist, Miami New Times,,,,,,,,,


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