'Prison Slavery': Inmates Are Paid Cents While Manufacturing Products Sold to Government

Nationwide inmate strikes over prison labor, living conditions and racist sentencing policies stretched into their second week on Tuesday.

The protests have focused national attention on work conditions that prisoners call “prison slavery.” Convicted criminals in government-run correctional facilities cook food, perform janitorial duties, wash laundry and conduct a range of other daily operations necessary for prisons to function.

The vast majority of the country’s working prisoners, who do their jobs without labor protections, perform maintenance activities for their detainment facilities. But prisons throughout the country also function like factories, with inmates manufacturing myriad products that are sold to government agencies and, to a much lesser extent, nonprofits. Despite their labor, inmates receive little, if any compensation for their work. This cheap and unpaid workforce, experts say, allows correctional facilities to operate.

“Prisons cannot operate without prison labor. They would simply be unaffordable,” Alex Friedmann, Managing Editor at Prison Legal News, told Newsweek.

Some 2.3 million people are incarcerated in both government and private prisons in the United States. Approximately half of these inmates work, according to a prison policy analyst who requested anonymity.

Some prisoners in eight states—Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas—are not paid at all for their labor in government-run facilities. The national average for inmates receiving the least compensation for their maintenance work in these prisons is 14 cents per hour, according to the non-profit Prison Policy Initiative. The countrywide average for those receiving the most for the same type of labor is 63 cents per hour. Inmates in Minnesota and New Jersey can receive the highest hourly rate for prison maintenance jobs: $2 per hour.

RTX1248Y Karen Cuauhtemoc holds a sign during a rally supporting hunger strikers in the California prison system in Los Angeles, California, on July 29, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn

Work opportunities theoretically benefit inmates by enabling them to spend time out of their cells, experts told Newsweek. But while the labor can be advantageous, conditions frequently make prison work an exploitative experience.

“I think the big picture is there’s a strong need to have work opportunities and job training for people in prison,” Executive Director at The Sentencing Project Marc Mauer told Newsweek. “Yes, we need to create opportunities. We should do it in a way that doesn’t exploit prison labor.”

Framing labor conditions as a human rights issue, the Jailhouse Lawyers Speak prisoners’ rights organization, which initiated the two-week strike, wrote in its demands that “Prisoners understand they are being treated as animals. We know that our conditions are causing physical harm and deaths that could be avoided if prison policy makers actually gave a d**n,” The Cut reported. 

This, Friedmann said, is at the core of the protests.“People in prison just want to be treated like people in prison. They’re still people.”

MEAT SMOKERS, LICENSE PLATES AND BRAILLE TEXTBOOKS: WHAT PRISONERS MANUFACTURE

Approximately 62,000 workers at government-run facilities participate in correctional industries programs, producing manufactured goods to sell to other state agencies and sometimes nonprofits, Director of Operations at the National Correctional Industries Association (NCIA) Wil Heslop told Newsweek. These jobs pay slightly higher than maintenance positions, with inmates earning an hourly wage of between 33 cents and $1.41, depending on their pay rate.

The NCIA represents state correctional industries, which use inmate labor to manufacture a range of products, including furniture and clothing. Each state has its own correctional industries program, which is separate from the U.S. government corporation Federal Prison Industries, known as UNICOR.

Both the NCIA and UNICOR tout the benefits of prisoner labor. Their messaging depicts their programs as a beneficial method for allowing inmates to prepare for life outside of prison.

Heslop could not provide figures noting whether prisoners that participate in correctional industries programs are more likely to find employment after their sentences end, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons did not comment prior to publication. Recidivism rates, however, seem to indicate that correctional industries positions affect post-release life.

“Since 1934, participating in UNICOR has helped put life back in balance for thousands of releasing men and women to rejoin society as productive citizens and family members,” UNICOR wrote in its 2017 annual report. “Offenders who participate in the program are 24 percent less likely to recidivate and 14 percent more likely to find and maintain employment following release from prison than their counterparts without similar UNICOR experience.”

Heslop told Newsweek that inmates who participated in state correctional industries programs have a 22 percent recidivism rate, compared to the national figure of 39 percent.

But some experts cast doubt on efforts to frame prison labor as largely beneficial. “The evidence is overwhelming that the jobs most prisoners do are not likely transportable to the outside,” Heather Ann Thompson, author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the Attica Prison uprising and expert on prison labor at the University of Michigan, told Newsweek. Thompson said the use of a prison labor force was more beneficial for the correctional facilities.

RTX1259V A protester carries a photo of an inmate while protesting against indefinite solitary confinement in California prisons, in Sacramento, California, on July 30, 2013. REUTERS/Max Whittaker

UNICOR employed almost 17,000 inmates in the 2017 fiscal year. The corporation sold $453.8 million in goods including clothing and textiles, office furniture and electronics during the same period. Almost 4,500 prisoners working for UNICOR in states from Colorado to New Jersey contributed to the clothing and textiles program, which sold over $126 million in products. 

Inmates working for UNICOR earned an average salary of $1,645, but federal and state correctional industries programs promote the financial benefits of their operations, even if they don't extend to the laborers. 

Washington state's correctional industries website notes that each $1 investment yields $12.68 in return to society. The NCIA writes that “Over 86 percent of CI programs are self-funded and operate solely from the revenue they generate from the products and services they provide.” UNICOR promotes the corporation’s belief in fiscal responsibility, noting that 50 percent “of UNICOR procurements are made to small, disadvantaged, service-disabled veteran and women-owned businesses.”

Products created in state and federal correctional industry positions are sold to an array of government agencies and nonprofits. Nebraska offers license plates, filing cabinets and braille textbooks. Oregon sells park equipment, business cards and embroidered goods. The products encompass a smorgasbord of imaginable industries.

Economists have debated the impact that inmate labor—both maintenance jobs and correctional industry manufacturing—has on the economy. Private companies regularly protest UNICOR, The Hill reported, arguing that using cheap labor undercuts the free market and prohibits their ability to compete. The experts Newsweek spoke to did not know of any figures detailing how much money inmate labor saved state and local governments, which would have to pay at least minimum wage to free-labor workers conducting the same activities.

But Friedmann said the overall financial impact would not affect prison functioning. “What does that figure mean? Ultimately it doesn’t mean that anything is going to change. They’re not going to start doing free world labor,” he told Newsweek.

PRISON LABOR REFORM NOT A PRIORITY

While almost all inmates are paid well below minimum wage, a small group of prisoners does earn their state’s legally mandated hourly rate.

The government’s Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP), which was created in 1979, employs 5,178 inmates. These prisoners work for private companies whose products enter the free market. While prisoners vie for a PIECP job for the experience and wages, those enrolled in this program still cannot utilize much of their earnings.

Costs for room and board in prison are extracted from their payment, as are fees for alimony and child support. With the amount left, prisoners must pay for products at the commissary and phone calls, while, in some cases, trying to support family members outside the prison.

Arguments about undermining the free market hold more value in relation to PIECP, since prisoners are being paid minimum wage.

In addition, government purchasers can re-sell products made through the PIECP program without informing buyers.

"If anything is made with prison labor, it has to be labeled as such,” Friedmann told Newsweek. “You label the box ‘made in prison,’ but you don’t label the items 'made in prison.’ And when it is resold, there are no labels.”

But the program is not likely to swell and greatly challenge the free economy. Significantly raising the number of prisoners in PIECP programs would mean shifting away from prisons' general reliance on cheap labor. Perhaps more importantly, state and federal policymakers have not concentrated on improving labor conditions.

“If you increase wages for [prison workers] that’s going to impact the state budget,” the policy analyst told Newsweek. “It seems like a low priority for a lot of folks.”

Correction: a previous version of this story said that products made by inmates working correctional industries jobs could be resold by the government to third parties.This statement applies to items made by prisoners in the PIECP program.

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