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The Truth About Prison Labor

Updated: 5 days ago

Dear Asian Youth,

The current United States prison labor system should not have a place in contemporary society. Prisoners are exploited for labor, forced to pay high fees, and in turn, are paid next to nothing. These individuals are forced to work a variety of tasks including jobs in both state-owned and private businesses. Common examples include answering customer service calls, farm work, and manufacturing goods. A non-profit organization called the Prison Policy Initiative reports that on average, prisoners with jobs in state-owned businesses are paid an hourly wage of $1.41. Furthermore, a vast majority of incarcerated people also work regular prison jobs where they cook food, wash laundry, and perform janitorial duties for a shockingly low hourly wage of $0.63. Due to the fact that prisoners are not protected by the Fair Labor Standards Act, this average “wage” is only 8.70% of the $7.25 federal minimum wage. Not to mention that because this wage varies from state to state, some are paid much lower than $0.63 per hour. Even worse, prisoners in the states Georgia, Arkansas, Alabama, and South Carolina are not paid a single cent for their work.

This lack of monetary compensation means that prison labor can be categorized as a form of slavery. The Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution clearly states that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Furthermore, this exception allows prisons to subject detainees to forced labor by permitting prison owners to punish any refusal to work. The Guardian discusses how private prisons in particular threaten their detainees with solitary confinement. A famous example from 2018 took place when an immigrant at a detention center in Georgia named Shoaib Ahmed was caught encouraging fellow workers to stop working because he was upset that his $20.00 paycheck, earned from 40 hours of work, was delayed. Ahmed's punishment for his refusal to work was ten days in solitary confinement, which he reported greatly affected his mental health. This is unsurprising as solitary confinement is widely regarded as a form of torture that both causes and worsens mental illnesses. Social psychologists Dr. Craig Haney from Harvard proved the damaging effects of solitary confinement when he tested 14 people who were subjected to this form of discipline and found recurring symptoms such as hypersensitivity, hallucinations, anxiety, panic attacks, paranoia, lack of impulse control, and difficulty thinking. Further, he went on to interview detainees at the Pelican Bay State Prison who endured 10 to 28 years of solitary confinement, and reported that 63% of these men felt on the verge of an “impending breakdown.” For comparison, only 4% of individuals in maximum-security prisons reported similar feelings of distress. Threatening prisoners with this form of torture for refusing to work is, by definition, forced labor. These damaging work conditions are authorized because prisoners are excluded from the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration protections that require employers to create safe working environments for their workers. Corecivic, the corporation that detained Shoaib Ahmed, is the largest prison corporation in the United States. It is constantly in the public eye and has repeatedly met accusations and lawsuits criticizing the corporation for unethical practices. However, laws protect Corecivic and therefore, enable the corporation to get away with deplorable actions.

Forced labor for low wages is an important issue because contrary to popular belief, in 49 states, prisoners are expected to pay for their sentence. There are three different pay-to-stay programs that prisons use to charge their detainees. The first is the “per-diem” program that charges prisoners a fee per day. The second type of fee charges inmates for additional supplies such as toilet paper, feminine hygiene products, medical co-pays, dental services, meals, and clothing. Finally, the least common fee is an optional fee for those who can afford a more accommodating facility. These fees do not even include the court costs, victim-witness assessments, and child support that many inmates need to pay.

Considering that prisoners make an average of $0.63 hourly, most are unable to afford these fees. Subsequently, inmates require outside help from their family and friends to support themselves. However, large corporations have realized the demand for a connection between inmates and the outside world, and have chosen to profit from these necessities as well. One of the biggest companies to capitalize on this demand is JPay. In 2018, JPay and the New York Department of Corrections agreed on a contract that would give free tablets to over 52,000 incarcerated individuals. Initially, this deal sounds incredibly generous, but in reality, it uses underhanded tricks to allow JPay to make higher profit margins. The contract states that JPay will collect fees up to 45% for depositing money, require $0.35 “stamps” to send and receive emails, offer video chats at $9 for every 30 minutes, and charge above-market prices for media. Companies such as JPay are why the United State’s prison phone industry is worth $1.2 billion. All of these expenses paired with unreasonably low wages allow for our nation’s ex-offenders to be $50 billion in debt.