For more than 150 years, the U.S. Constitution has relegated prisoners to a distinct underclass that allows us to be exploited for our cheap, and in many cases unpaid, labor. Although the 13th Amendment was intended to protect citizens from being abused through slavery, it included a carveout stating that this right to protection did not apply to those convicted of crimes. Inside the towering walls and razor wire fences of U.S. prisons, slavery remains legal—and it is carried out with little oversight, often under horrific conditions.
As a society, we’re constantly told that people behind bars belong there and that they owe us a debt. It’s true that those of us who are incarcerated have a responsibility to do everything in our power to repair the harm we’ve caused. But forcing us to submit to exploitation and abuse for the benefit of corporations does not help victims of crime or make society safer.
A 2022 ACLU and Global Human Rights Clinic report found that people incarcerated in state and federal prisons produce approximately $11 billion in goods and services for the U.S. economy while being paid pennies for their labor. Often, this leaves prisoners unable to afford basic hygiene items or even phone calls or stationery to help us remain in contact with the outside world.
Unlike workers in the outside world, incarcerated workers “are under the complete control of their employers … stripped of even the most minimal protections against labor exploitation and abuse,” the report concluded.
Incarcerated workers in every state earn far less than minimum wage. The average minimum hourly wage for prisoners in non-industry jobs across the U.S. is 13 cents an hour, the ACLU and GHRC found. The average maximum hourly wage is 52 cents an hour. In seven states, incarcerated workers receive no compensation for most work assignments. Industry jobs, in which prisoners produce goods and services for private companies, pay only slightly better, but still ensure that the employer nets a huge profit.
Some states allow for the garnishing of these meager prison wages to pay for child support, court fees, restitution, institutional debt—incurred when prisoners cannot afford hygiene items or medical copays—and even room and board costs.
And while our wages are just a fraction of even the lowest-paying jobs on the outside, we are forced to pay highly inflated prices for basic necessities. At the prison in Washington State where I am incarcerated, many jobs pay only 42 cents an hour. A local 20-minute phone call costs $1.43, meaning a prisoner must work 3.5 hours to cover the cost of that call. A 3-ounce bag of freeze-dried coffee is $3.34, or 8 hours of work. A tube of Colgate Sensitive toothpaste is $6.10—more than 14.5 hours of work. The list goes on.
With low wages and high costs, prisoners have no choice but to depend on support networks to send them money—if they are fortunate enough to have them. Families with an incarcerated loved one spend an estimated $2.9 billion each year on commissary accounts and phone calls, the ACLU and GHCR found. More than half of these families go into debt covering costs related to a relative’s conviction and incarceration.
Many jobs in prison place incarcerated workers in extreme danger. To keep prison labor running during the pandemic, administrators declared incarcerated people essential workers and forced them to risk their health and safety. In New York, prisoners were paid less than a dollar an hour to make hand sanitizer. These positions put them at heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 to manufacture a protective product that they were generally not allowed to use for themselves.
At the height of the pandemic in Washington state, prisons forced incarcerated workers to maintain laundry and food services, and to clean areas that housed COVID-positive prisoners. The administration required us to continue showing up for industry jobs where we sewed prison clothing and property bags. When prisoners inevitably contracted COVID-19, we were hauled off to solitary confinement for weeks, where we, rather unsurprisingly, received no paid sick leave and, after recovering, were sent right back to work. Those who refused to work due to health concerns were given infractions that could lead to the loss of personal property or even a delayed release date.
When people leave prison, they often reenter society with no savings to show for their years of labor—despite years of work. Additionally, most prison jobs do not teach skills that are applicable after release. They are proverbial “dead-end” jobs primarily designed to keep prisons running and prop up the businesses that rely on our cheap or literal slave labor.
After spending years working to pay off court fines and other fees assessed by the Department of Corrections, I was still broke. It was clear that prison labor could not offer me the future I wanted. With generous support from others, I have spent the past three years working to build a career as a journalist reporting from the inside. This process has taught me transferable skills that will allow me to have a viable career when I return home.
But the prison labor system isn’t meant to afford these sorts of opportunities to everyone. Most prison jobs make it impossible for incarcerated people to support their loved ones from the inside while denying them experiences that might translate into stable careers on the outside. But in the eyes of the state, the work we do is not for us. It is for the benefit of the system that holds us captive.
Christopher Blackwell is an award-winning journalist currently incarcerated at the Washington Corrections Center, in Shelton, Washington. He has been incarcerated since 2003.