Every year incarcerated workers in the US produce at least $11 billion in goods and services, in exchange for pennies per hour in wages and a lack of basic protection against labour exploitation and abuse.
Prison labourers are unable to afford basic necessities such as bath soap with their meagre wages, yet they produce at least $2 billion in goods and $9 billion worth of prison maintenance annually for the United States.
A new report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the University of Chicago Law School Global Human Rights Clinic details how prison labourers are “at the mercy of their employers,” often exploited, underpaid, and excluded from workplace safety protection laws.
It found that in exchange for their labour, prisoners receive between 15 and 52 cents per hour on average for non-industry jobs. Often up to 80 percent of this is withheld for taxes and other expenses such as court costs.
Even worse, seven state prison systems – Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas – pay nothing at all for the majority of incarcerated labour.
“The US has a long, problematic history of using incarcerated workers as a source of cheap labour and to subsidise the costs of our bloated prison system,” said Jennifer Turner, researcher with the ACLU’s Human Rights Program and primary author of the report.
“Incarcerated workers are stripped of even the most minimal protections against labour exploitation and abuse,” said Turner.
The majority of prison labourers surveyed by the ACLU said they do not receive adequate training and equipment (70 percent), and are denied workplace safety guarantees despite often dangerous working conditions.
While they have no control over their assignments, they are not given minimum wage or overtime protections and are unable to unionise.
Threat of punishments
The US incarcerates over 1.2 million people in state and federal prisons, with nearly 65 percent working behind bars – roughly 800,000 labourers.
Prisoners take up a wide variety of jobs such as cooks, janitors, barbers, painters and plumbers. They also provide critical public services from repairing roads and fighting wildfires to clearing debris after hurricanes.
They manufacture products like furniture and licence plates, and cultivate and harvest crops. During the pandemic, incarcerated workers even washed hospital laundry and worked in mortuary services.
Despite the value of their services, a majority of prisoners (76 percent) said if they refused the work or were unable to, they would face punishments such as solitary confinement, denial of sentence reductions and loss of family visitation.
“The many incarcerated workers we interviewed told us story after story of inadequate equipment and training, punishments doled out if workers refused to labour,” said Claudia Flores, director of the Global Human Rights Clinic and a co-author of the report.
The prisoners spoke of “an overall helplessness to a government institution functioning as both jailer and boss,” according to Flores.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the US spends $81 billion a year on mass incarceration. However, experts say that figure is a considerable underestimate.
“If states and the federal government can afford to incarcerate 1.2 million people in prisons, they can afford to pay them fairly for their work,” said Turner.
Prisons are able to exploit these workers due to the “exception clause” of the United States Constitution’s 13th Amendment. It bans “slavery” and “involuntary servitude…except as a punishment for crime.”
The clause also “disproportionately encouraged the criminalisation and re-enslavement of Black people during the Jim Crow era,” the ACLU said.
The incarcerated labour force is “undoubtedly disproportionately” made up of Black people, who are incarcerated in state prisons at nearly five times the rate of whites, it added.
Dangerous working conditions
The report found that 64 percent of prison labourers said they were concerned about their safety while working.
Prison labour often takes place in “dangerous industrial settings or other hazardous conditions that would be closely regulated by federal workplace health and safety regulations if they were not incarcerated,” it said.
“The labour conditions of incarcerated workers in many US prisons violate the most fundamental human rights to life and dignity,” said Flores. “In any other workplace, these conditions would be shocking and plainly unlawful.”
The team’s research found that incarcerated workers with minimal experience or training are given work in unsafe conditions and without protective gear.
This in turn leads to severe injuries or death on the job. The California Prison Industry Authority (CALPIA) reported more than 600 injuries among incarcerated workers over a four-year period, including crushed or amputated body parts.
Often incarcerated people need to earn money to send home to family and friends, and studies have also shown that those who had some savings when they leave prison were less likely to recidivate than those who did not.
The report called for reforms to combat the exploitation of incarcerated workers, including ensuring that all work in prisons is fully voluntary with no punishments and amending the constitution to abolish the 13th Amendment’s exclusionary clause.
In addition, the report recommends allowing incarcerated workers the same labour protections afforded to other workers in the US, such as minimum wage and health and safety standards, and focusing on marketable skills and training to help prisoners find employment after release.