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It's Time to Pay Prisoners the Minimum Wage

Paying just $2 a day hurts our economy and punishes families


In 1981, at the age of 42, Bob Sloan left prison a new man. Convicted of a “white-collar crime” in 1981, Sloan went to prison in Florida to serve a ten-year sentence. There, he got a degree in architectural design and worked as a draughtsman for a company called PRIDE, a prison industries company that also focuses on rehabilitation. He’ll be the first to tell you that the work he did in prison transformed him. “When I got out of there, job placement worked with me and I got two different jobs with them. I got on my feet—got my own home, my own car. I was on probation, and got all that taken care of. [Prison labor] introduced me back into society. That was a big impact and a big help.”

While in prison, Sloan was able to pay off all $10,000 of his restitution through his work as a draughtsman. He left prison in 1990, having paid off his debt to society and having gained the ability to contribute in a concrete way through the skills he developed “on the inside.” Sloan’s experience turned him into an advocate of rehabilitation of the incarcerated through labor programs. Having gained a sizeable following on the left, he now writes a blog for Daily Kos, chronicling and investigating the issues that surround prison labor in the United States, all while working on a book about prison labor in the United States.

With 2.4 million people currently incarcerated, the United States has the highest incarceration rate on the planet. 18% of those who are in federal prisons work in some capacity; the number of employed in state penitentiaries varies since some states require that all able-bodied prisoners work, while others provide very few programs. Yet these laborers—who frequently receive wages as low as 25 cents an hour, and whose maximum wage in Federal prisons is $1.15—may be the key to many states’ budget crises. To alleviate the increased strain on public services, more and more local jurisdictions are looking to prisoners as a cheap source of labor. While it’s difficult to quantify how much inmate labor has helped budgets as it varies on a case-to-case basis, The New York Times reported that Florida managed to save $2.4 million a year by employing inmates as farmers.

But the reason that prison labor saves money is that inmates aren’t treated like the rest of the country’s labor force. Sloan, for instance, has seen a shift in prison labor since he left his program. “It’s no longer dedicated to improving skills of inmates but directed to getting the highest profits [prison labor organizations] can get.” These prisoners lack virtually all of the basic rights that Americans “on the outside” take for granted: minimum wage, worker’s compensation if injured in an accident, the right to unionize. It may seem like this is saving us money, but in fact our economy loses out because of it. Estimates vary, but some analyses show that prisoners’ potential economic output could add up to $125 to each US citizen annually, if inmates worked at the minimum wage. So not only does this present problems on basic humanitarian grounds, but the economic benefits of prison labor would be even greater if the prisoners were afforded the same working rights as America’s free population.

Prison labor has long existed in a “legal black hole,” as David Fathi of the ACLU puts it. Fathi, who directs the ACLU’s National Prison Project, told me: “[Prison labor] seems more common than it did ten or twenty years ago. And a real concern is that employers, whether they’re public or private, are naturally going to be attracted by a uniquely docile and powerless, and literally captive labor force.”

American prison labor has a long, dark history that, in some cases, has reenacted the worst parts of our country’s history. Until the 1970s, for example, in Texas “the main work program was picking cotton,” explained Charlie Sullivan, the head of Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE), an international organization that advocates on behalf of the incarcerated. “Texas boasted that the way they saved money was on the backs of prisoners”—prisoners which were not given wages and were afforded few protections. 

American prisons have come quite a way since then, but prison laborers are still marginalized. Tom Petersik has studied the problems associated with prison labor nearly all his career. As a labor economist with the federal government, Petersik got involved with prison statistics back in the ’70s. In 2000, he commissioned a study funded by George Soros’s Open Society Institute that targeted the question of, “whether it was good or bad for the U.S. economy that inmates were excluded from the main labor force.”

For the study, Petersik convened five top economists to work on the question (including Nobel prize-winner Gary Becker and Steven Levitt of Freakanomics fame). The economists all conducted extensive research on the subject and produced a bevy of papers that all argued that, in one way or another, to use Petersik’s words, “virtually every stakeholder in the U.S. economy would be better off if people who were incarcerated were fully integrated into the U.S. labor force, and were responsible in meeting their obligations to their communities, families, and victims.”

By “fully integrated,” Petersik means that these inmate-laborers should be guaranteed the basics worker rights (minimum wage, worker’s comp, right to unionize and strike). Depriving prisoners of these basic rights, the economists argued, in turn deprives their victims of potential restitution and the economy at large of additional drivers of economic production. More specifically, the families of offenders miss out on financial support, especially if the household’s sole breadwinner is the one incarcerated. There are more children of inmates than there are inmates in American prisons, many of whom wind up relying on public assistance. Prisoners’ wages, if higher, could be garnished to support these families. At $2 a day, it’s difficult to imagine a family getting any kind of support. It’s also difficult to conceive of victims receiving any kind of meaningful compensation from this sort of work scheme.

Look at California, for example. The state’s Department of Corrections recently launched a program called Conservation Camps, in which inmates battle wildfires alongside professional firefighters. According to Bill Sessa, an information officer at the California Department of Corrections, the inmates work up to 24-hour shifts, like normal firemen. But unlike the full-time firemen, the inmates receive only $2 a day for their work. The prisoners, who have to apply to the program and are selected on the basis of good behavior with an aptitude to reform, live in a guarded camp near the worksite, and also receive time off of their sentences for each day that they work. 

It may sound like a good deal. And as prison programs go, it is. The California firefighting program ranks among the best in the country in terms of treatment of prisoners. The convicts get a small wage (better than nothing) and they have the opportunity to contribute to the community they’ve harmed. Plus, they may get their sentences reduced. “Many of [the inmates] say that a lot of the lessons they learned in the camps benefited them later in life,” Sessa told me. “It’s not necessarily vocational skills, but it taught them how to work as part of a group, how to be on time, how to be responsible.” Plus, at least in California, the Conservation Camp inmates don’t take jobs away from erstwhile firefighters: “It’s not as though these inmates are supplanting any full-time firefighters—they’re all hired to the max,” Sessa pointed out.

But it’s still not a total net positive. By paying miniscule wages, more dependents of inmates end up on welfare, and more inmates find themselves in worse financial straits when they leave prison. Potential income is lost, meaning less jobs are created overall.

Beyond economics, rights of prison laborers need to be considered from a humanitarian perspective. Petersik noted that, “The U.S. says that it’s a fundamental human right that everyone has a means of survival. And yet, we somehow believe that [prisoners] having access to no income is a good thing.” The states of Texas, Oregon, and Missouri all have legislation requiring that inmates work during their time in prison, meaning that many work even without the pittance that is currently given to them.

There’s a certain hypocrisy that exists with regard to prison labor. The population is fine to have offenders out of sight and out of mind, so long as the effects are invisible. But there are countless people who want to reform and receive little benefit for doing so, and countless more who remain unemployed even while wanting to learn a skill that might help them break whatever cycle of crime and poverty in which they find themselves trapped. A lot of human potential rots away in our nation’s jail cells. As Petersik observed, “When a fire is approaching our home, that guy sitting in a cell becomes our best friend. So you sit back and think, are we using these people effectively in the first place?”