This is the second in a three-part blog series authored by Polaris to introduce the issue.  Read part one here and part three here.

Most people assume that in 1865 with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment slavery in the United States was abolished. However, forced labor still exists in the United States today through the exception built into the Thirteenth Amendment for those who have been “duly convicted of a crime”. This exception made it legal and permissible to continue slavery within prisons in the United States. This is commonly known now as prison labor. As the criminal justice system then and today overwhelmingly penalizes minorities specifically African Americans, it was a way to continue the racial injustice that existed under slavery. At first, those who were incarcerated were leased to private individuals and corporations under convict leasing, however, this ended in the middle of the 20th century but the federal government, states, and even private companies continue today to profit off the imprisonment and labor of those incarcerated or detained.

There are three types of labor that incarcerated individuals in jails, prisons, halfway homes and those in immigration detention may be forced or mandated to participate in. The first type of labor is the one that is most common and operates in all facilities: Institutional labor.  These are the jobs that support the operations of the prison or detention facility. They may include cooking, cleaning, laundry, landscaping, and other jobs. Most of this work is for low pay, on average $0.14-0.63 an hour, or no pay at all.[1] Institutional maintenance jobs are equivalent to janitorial, laundry, food service, or landscaping jobs outside of detention facilities – typically 4-8 hours a day- and multiple days a week. In many of these jobs, without the use of free or heavily discounted labor the facility would need to hire a civilian employee to do the work. The cost savings that exists in using free or cheap prison labor allows private prison facilities to actually make a profit off housing incarcerated individuals or immigrant detainees.[2]

The second type of labor incarcerated individuals typically perform is working for either a state or federal government correctional industry. Most states and the federal government have created correctional industries which are businesses or corporations run by the state or federal government that operate in correctional facilities and utilize incarcerated individuals as free or cheap laborers. The type of work done by the incarcerated individuals is dependent on the federal government or state’s correctional industry but can include manufacturing, furniture building, agriculture, making license plates or signs, and making uniforms or apparel. Most products from correctional industries can only be sold to government agencies and non-profits within the state due to the Ashurst-Sumners Act, however, there is an exception for agriculture, which can be sold across state lines to anyone, including subcontractors who use the agriculture goods to make other products or even directly to customers.[3] [4]

The third type of labor incarcerated individuals perform affects only a small number of incarcerated (approximately 5,000 nationwide)[5] individuals who work for private companies through a program called the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP). This program allows private companies to contract with state governments to hire incarcerated individuals to work for them.

The average wage per hour for incarcerated individuals is typically less than a dollar an hour for jobs in state and federal correctional industries and in three states, Arkansas, Georgia, and Texas, incarcerated workers are not paid for working in any correctional industry work.[6] Institutional jobs typically paying less than the correctional industries and in several states; Arkansas, Georgia, Texas, South Carolina, and Alabama; inmates are not paid at all for this type of work.[7] Those in the PIECP program are paid the prevailing wage for the work they are doing, but up to 80% of their wages can be deducted for various fees meaning most are paid significantly less than a typical wage for their work.[8] For all types of prison work, deductions are taken out of incarcerated individuals’ pay; forty six states charge incarcerated individuals room and board while they are held which means most incarcerated individuals leave prison owing money to the state instead of having savings to help them rebuild their lives.

[1] Sawyer, W. (2017, April 10). How much do incarcerated people earn in each state? Prison Policy Initiative. Retrieved from https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2017/04/10/wages/.

[2] Bryant, S. (2019, June 25). The Business Model of Private Prisons. Investopedia. Retrieved from https://www.investopedia.com/articles/investing/062215/business-model-private-prisons.asp.

[3] Ashurst-Sumners Act, Pub. L. No. 74-215, 49 (1935). Retrieved from https://www.repository.law.indiana.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=4699&context=ilj.

[4] Goodridge, J., Schwartzer, M., Jantz, C., & Christian, L. (2018). Prison Labor in the United States: An Investor Perspective. Northstar Asset Management. Retrieved from https://northstarasset.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/revMay2018_Prison-Labor-in-the-Supply-Chain.pdf.

[5] Campbell, A. F. (2018, August 24). The Federal Government Markets Prison Labor to Businesses as the “Best-Kept Secret”. Vox. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/2018/8/24/17768438/national-prison-strike-factory-labor.

[6] Sawyer, W. (2017, April 10). How much do incarcerated people earn in each state? Prison Policy Initiative. Retrieved from https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2017/04/10/wages/.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Vongkiatkajorn, K. (2016, September 19). Why Prisoners Across the Country Have Gone On Strike. Mother Jones. Retrieved from https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/09/prison-strike-inmate-labor-work/.