This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I’m Darius Rafieyan.

CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:

And I’m Cardiff Garcia. Prison labor has been a part of the U.S. economy since at least the late 19th century. And today it’s a multi-billion-dollar industry with incarcerated people doing everything from building office furniture and making military equipment to staffing call centers and doing 3D modeling.

RAFIEYAN: Companies like Walmart, AT&T, Whole Foods, Victoria’s Secret have all relied on the labor of incarcerated people. And right now there are people in prisons all over the country working for little to no money, making hand sanitizer and face masks to help fight COVID-19.

GARCIA: But even so, this industry is not well-understood. Incarcerated workers are not included in official employment statistics. And there’s just not a ton of economic research done on this topic, so it can be difficult to know just how substantial this sector of our economy actually is.

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