Captive Labor: Exploitation of Incarcerated Workers
Our nation incarcerates over 1.2 million people in state and federal prisons, and two out of three of these incarcerated people are also workers. In most instances, the jobs these people in prison have look similar to those of millions of people working on the outside: They work as cooks, dishwashers, janitors, groundskeepers, barbers, painters, or plumbers; in laundries, kitchens, factories, and hospitals. They provide vital public services such as repairing roads, fighting wildfires, or clearing debris after hurricanes. They washed hospital laundry and worked in mortuary services at the height of the pandemic. They manufacture products like office furniture, mattresses, license plates, dentures, glasses, traffic signs, athletic equipment, and uniforms. They cultivate and harvest crops, work as welders and carpenters, and work in meat and poultry processing plants.
But there are two crucial differences: Incarcerated workers are under the complete control of their employers, and they have been stripped of even the most minimal protections against labor exploitation and abuse.
From the moment they enter the prison gates, they lose the right to refuse to work. This is because the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which generally protects against slavery and involuntary servitude, explicitly excludes from its reach those held in confinement due to a criminal conviction.1 More than 76 percent of incarcerated workers report that they are required to work or face additional punishment such as solitary confinement, denial of opportunities to reduce their sentence, and loss of family visitation, or the inability to pay for basic life necessities like bath soap.2 They have no right to choose what type of work they do and are subject to arbitrary, discriminatory, and punitive decisions by the prison administrators who select their work assignments.3
U.S. law also explicitly excludes incarcerated workers from the most universally recognized workplace protections. Incarcerated workers are not covered by minimum wage laws or overtime protection, are not afforded the right to unionize, and are denied workplace safety guarantees. Workers are assigned hazardous work in unsafe conditions without the standard training or protective gear provided in workplaces outside prisons.
Nobody expects prison labor to be highly remunerative. But incarcerated workers typically earn little to no pay at all, with many making just pennies an hour. It is rare that a job pays more than a dollar an hour—even the incarcerated firefighters braving the flames that rage across California’s forests and hillsides year after year are compensated at $1 an hour.4 Even so, many consider themselves lucky to receive these low wages. That is because, in seven states, incarcerated individuals are forced to work but are paid nothing at all for most jobs.
At the same time, incarcerated workers produce real value for state prisons and state governments, the system’s primary beneficiaries. Nationally, incarcerated workers produce more than $2 billion a year in goods and commodities and over $9 billion a year in services for the maintenance of the prisons where they are warehoused. Even though prison labor is not what is driving mass incarceration in the United States, incarcerated workers’ labor does partially offset the staggering costs of our country’s bloated prison system.
The majority of incarcerated people wish to be productive while in prison. They want, and often need, to earn money to send home to loved ones and pay for basic necessities while incarcerated. They want to acquire skills useful for employment after their release. Studies show that people who had some savings when they leave prison and got jobs after their release were less likely to recidivate than those who did not. We all have an interest in prison work being something beyond pure punitive exploitation. Yet despite the potential for prison labor to facilitate rehabilitation, the existing system very often offers nothing beyond exploitation.
Drawing on responses to open records requests, analysis of state and federal laws and regulations, interviews, and written questionnaires completed by incarcerated workers, this report discusses at length the features of state and federal prison labor systems that result in systemic exploitation and abuse. This report also recommends concrete steps to make prison systems treat incarcerated workers with dignity and respect for their human rights. Though this report centers on the gratuitously harsh conditions of contemporary prison labor, it is embedded in larger conversations about racism, sexism, the U.S. criminal legal system, the 13th Amendment, and the ultimate morality of this country’s vast network of prisons, jails, and detention facilities.
Understanding Prison Labor
The roots of modern-day labor programs can be traced to the end of the Civil War and the passage of the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery “except as a punishment for crime.” States in the North and the South turned to incarcerated labor as a means of partially replacing chattel slavery and the free labor force slavery provided. As state corrections systems expanded, so too did the number of state-sponsored incarcerated labor programs.
The exception clause in the 13th Amendment disproportionately encouraged the criminalization and effective re-enslavement of Black people during the Jim Crow era, and the impacts of this systemic racism persist to this day in the disproportionate incarceration of Black and brown community members.
Under today’s system of mass incarceration, nearly 2 million people are held in prisons and jails across the United States.7 Almost all U.S. prisons have work programs that employ incarcerated workers: Nearly 99 percent of public adult prisons and nearly 90 percent of private adult prisons have such programs.8 Of the more than 1.2 million people incarcerated in state and federal prisons,9 over 65 percent work.10
Based on our analysis of data from the Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics survey of people in prisons conducted in 2016 and census of people in prisons at year end 2020—both of which were published in late 2021 and are the most recent available data—we estimate that at least 791,500 people incarcerated in U.S. prisons perform work as part of their incarceration.11 Because of a lack of available data, our estimate excludes people confined in local jails or detention centers, juvenile correctional facilities, and immigration detention facilities.
Although the Federal Bureau of Prisons and nearly all state departments of corrections refused to provide data on the number and race of people in prisons with work assignments, the incarcerated labor force is undoubtedly disproportionately made up of people who are Black, relative to their overall representation in the general population in the community. Black Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at nearly five times the rate of whites, and in 12 states, more than half the prison population is Black, despite constituting 13 percent of the nationwide general population.12
The vast majority of incarcerated workers perform maintenance work, keeping the facilities that confine them running. More than 80 percent of incarcerated workers in state and federal prisons who were surveyed by the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported working in jobs that served to maintain the prisons where they are incarcerated.13 About 30 percent of all incarcerated workers perform general janitorial duties, nearly 20 percent work in food preparation or carry out other kitchen duties, 8.5 percent provide grounds maintenance, 6.6 percent work in maintenance or repair, 4.5 percent work in laundry, and 14.1 percent perform essential services by working in prison hospitals or infirmaries, libraries, stockrooms, stores, and barber shops.14
State prison industries, also called “correctional industries,” constitute a second type of prison labor program that accounts for about 6.5 percent of prison jobs. The number of incarcerated workers employed in state prison industries programs has been dropping in recent years, from 91,043 in 200815 to 51,569 in 2021.16 These are jobs in state-owned corporations that produce goods, services, and commodities sold to other government agencies. Many states require all state agencies, political units, and public institutions to purchase manufactured goods, including furniture, cleaning supplies, printed materials, and uniforms, from their state correctional industries.17 Correctional industries programs are not limited to manufacturing, as states rely on incarcerated workers to provide a variety of services, such as data entry, repairing state-owned vehicles, and washing laundry for public hospitals and universities. For example, people incarcerated in New York and Oregon help staff the states’ Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) call centers, fielding questions directed towards the department.18
A third category of prison labor is public works assignments, sometimes referred to as “community work crews,” for the benefit of state, municipal, and local government agencies and occasionally nonprofit organizations. States and municipalities contract with state departments of corrections to use the labor of incarcerated workers for a variety of public works projects, mostly off prison grounds. Incarcerated workers maintain cemeteries, school grounds, fairgrounds, and public parks; do road work; construct buildings; clean government offices; clean up landfills and hazardous spills; undertake forestry work in state-owned forests; and treat sewage.
Our research found that at least 41 state departments of correction have public works programs that employ incarcerated workers.19 About 44 percent of public prisons nationwide assign incarcerated workers to work on public works assignments outside the prison.20 Public works constituted 8 percent of all state prisoners’ work assignments at the time of the previous Bureau of Justice Statistics survey in 2004 (the most recent survey does not include disaggregated data on incarcerated workers assigned to public works).21
In Florida, for instance, about 3,500 unpaid incarcerated workers work on state road crews and “community work squads,” required to provide labor for hundreds of state and municipal agencies and dozens of state colleges and nonprofits.22 In North Carolina, nearly 1,000 incarcerated workers work on the state’s roads for the state Department of Transportation and on manual labor jobs for other state and local government agencies.23 In Arizona, 1,083 incarcerated people work on public works crews for the Department of Transportation and other state, local, and county entities through intergovernmental agreements with the corrections department.24 These workers logged more than 1.8 million hours of work for the community during fiscal year 2020.25 In Washington state, about 1,000 people work in similar community work programs through which incarcerated workers work on stream clean-up, land clearance, farming, and development of parks and recreation areas.26 In Mississippi, each state prison provides incarcerated workers’ labor for free to local towns and municipalities.27 In Arkansas, incarcerated people on “inmate work crews” logged nearly half a million hours in regional maintenance alone in 2020.28
Through such programs, incarcerated workers also perform critical work preparing for and responding to natural disasters, including sandbagging, supporting evacuations, clearing debris, and assisting with recovery and reconstruction after hurricanes, tornadoes, mudslides, or floods.29 For example, in Florida, hundreds of unpaid incarcerated workers were tasked with picking up fallen trees and other debris after Hurricane Irma, and in Texas hundreds of unpaid incarcerated workers filled sandbags in preparation for Hurricane Harvey, forced to work in the storm’s path while people outside prisons were evacuated.30 Incarcerated firefighters also fight wildfires in Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Washington, and Wyoming. For instance, Georgia’s incarcerated firefighter unit responds to over 3,000 calls annually, assisting with wildfires, structural fires, and motor vehicle accidents—for zero pay.31
A fourth category of prison labor is work for private industries through the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP), which allows private companies to produce goods and services using prison labor.32 There are several employment models within this category. Some incarcerated people work directly for the private company while others are employed by the prison and are essentially contracted out to the company.33 PIECP employs the smallest number—only 4,860 workers, or less than 1 percent—of incarcerated people of any prison labor program.34
Agricultural work fits within multiple categories of prison labor. Some incarcerated workers engage in field labor for the maintenance of the prison, cultivating and harvesting crops to be eaten by the people incarcerated there. Others engage in farming or ranching work for prison industries programs or for private corporations through PIECP programs to produce livestock, crops, and other agricultural products for sale. Twenty-seven percent of public prisons have work programs in farming and agriculture.35 Although only 2.2 percent of incarcerated workers are engaged in agricultural work in prisons nationwide, in some states, agricultural work constitutes a greater percentage of work assignments, such as in Arkansas, where 17 percent of job assignments for incarcerated people were in agricultural work in 2021.36 Some of this agricultural work takes place outside prison walls, while in states including Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Texas, incarcerated workers work on penal plantations or prison farms, some of which are situated on land that was originally the site of slave plantations.
Analysis using data sets from 2004 and 2005 and multilevel modeling to examine the nature of work assignments in state prisons found that race significantly impacted work assignments. The study, published in 2016, found that Black men represent the highest percentage of men assigned to agriculture and maintenance or other facilities services jobs— typically lower-paying or unpaid jobs—while a higher percentage of white men were assigned to public works jobs and more sought-after and higher-paying prison industries jobs
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