In America there are roughly 2.3 million people incarcerated. That equates to about 698 people per 100,000 that are jailed right now. Convictions span across the board along with varying levels of sentences. There are several issues at hand when it comes to mass incarceration but one glaring problem is the abuse of the prison labor system.
To begin, there are two types of prison labor. The first is a federal program called the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program, this allows inmates to become employed by approved local businesses and state facilities. The other is simply employment within the prison itself. Both employment options seem progressive in theory and should realistically help inmates improve their lives, skillsets, and financial means. Unfortunately, the system does just the opposite. It preys upon inmates, usually qualifying them for low level positions with barley survivable wages.
In 2017 the average hourly wage for incarcerated individuals, employed by businesses and state approved facilities, fell between $.14 and $.63. For those employed within the actual prison system itself the earnings averaged between $.33 and $1.41. Keep in mind the federal minimum wage is set at $7.25. What is even worse is that some of the same corporations that are forced to pay their employees minimum wage are the very same ones that abuse the prison labor system.
A report released by the advocacy group Worth Rises details 4,100 corporations that actively take advantage of inmate labor and 180 of them are publicly traded on Wall Street. They employ inmates to perform in fields such as manufacturing, farming, and packaging. Even call centers can be used for prison labor. Most of the corporations on this list will not look remarkably familiar to the average consumer. And this is by design, because the larger corporations that are easily recognizable will contract the work to a company that will use cheap prison labor. This way their relationship with the public can continue to grow while they also continue to profit off inexpensive labor. Today, these corporations will fervently deny using any form of prison labor, but a handful have been ousted by inmates themselves as well as prying journalists.
Today we see that slavery still exists, and it is much closer to home than most Americans can imagine. While the thirteenth amendment did abolish slavery it also allows it as a punishment for crimes (with a conviction). With this, corporations, government, and the business world have created a tool that preys upon incarcerated citizens.
The low wages afforded to inmates raises the questions, how can their lives be re-built after prison with no money? Court costs and legal fees are only a few of the financial burdens accosted to convicted offenders during their sentence. Their life savings may very well be depleted before even stepping foot in a prison so how can they save money for a life after prison when they are paid pennies for hours of labor? Socio-economic conditions combined with the difficulty of finding employment as a convicted person may force individuals back into a life of crime. When they were not able to save money, because of the extremely low wages, they were not able to create financial stability. This lack of stability will not be a weapon in the fight to reform the prison system. Inmates need to be empowered through work, education and reformation, so they can become beneficial members of society, not manipulated by profit hungry institutions that seek to cheat labor laws.
By: Patrick O’Connor
- How many people are locked up in the United States? | Prison Policy Initiative
- What Does ‘Prison Labor’ Really Mean, & Should We Abolish It? (bustle.com)
- How much do incarcerated people earn in each state? | Prison Policy Initiative
- Worth Rises — Worth Rises Releases Third Annual Prison Industry Report with 4,135 Corporations Profiting from Mass Incarceration