The Truth About Prison Labor
an article by Lora Kwon
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.
Despite various pushes for prisoners to make a liveable wage, many have difficulty sympathizing with these prisoners. This hostility can often be attributed to the fact that according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the United States spends over $80 billion per year to run prisons. Many Americans reason that instead of placing this huge financial burden on taxpayers, prisoners should work to front this cost. However, as aforementioned, these wages are unreasonable compared to expenses they have to pay for basic supplies and communication. Instead of saving money by making prison conditions unlivable, taxpayers should instead focus on lowering this expense by lowering the obscene number of prisoners in the American prison system. Despite making up only 4% of the world's population, about 25% of the world’s incarcerated individuals are in the United States. Furthermore, the US has the highest rate of incarceration in the world and this rate has increased 500% over the last forty years.
A primary reason for the sheer number of people in our prison system is our country’s high recidivism rates. Recidivism refers to the rate of convicted individuals reoffending. The United States Sentencing Commission found that 63.8% of violent offenders recidivated while 39.8% of non-violent offenders recidivated. The reason people keep going back to prison is that after committing one offense, these individuals can no longer fit back or assimilate into society. In many states, ex-offenders are not eligible for welfare, public housing, food stamps, and loans. Prisoners who have spent time in jail have already been punished for their crimes and when they are released, they need to be integrated back into our society to avoid high recidivism rates.
The United States should instead observe countries such as Norway, which has a shockingly low recidivism rate of 20%. A large part of this success can be attributed to Norway’s focus on rehabilitation as opposed to punishment. All prisons in Norway offer education, drug treatment, mental health support, and training programs. After release, prisoners are offered social and economic support in terms of finding jobs, housing, and insurance. This kind of support is not prioritized in the United States, which is why according to the Prison Policy Initiative, former prisoners are unemployed at a rate of over 27%. For reference, this is higher than the US unemployment rate of 25% during the Great Depression. Without a job, home, or food, many ex-offenders end up back in prison, contributing to the issue of mass incarceration. As the number of prisoners increases so does the expenses. So, instead of using prisoners for cheap labor, our country should be prioritizing the reintegration of ex-offenders into society, so that we can shift the focus to creating a society with an ethical prison system. Once our incarceration rates are under control, funding prisons will become a substantially smaller taxpayer burden. This is a much more realistic and just goal than forcing more prisoners into debt by lowering wages for prison labor.
The issue with this vision is that corporate America has little incentive to stop mass incarceration. While taxpayers and prisoners are fronting the cost of mass incarceration, the prison industry profits off prisoners. As aforementioned, third party companies such as JPay charge prisoners for means of communications, so these companies benefit financially from mass incarceration. However, so do the private prisons that house these offenders. These prisons receive a stipend from the government to run their prisons, then charge detainees more than they receive from the government in order to make a profit. Furthermore, two out of three private prisons even sneak lock up quotas into their contracts so that they have to be at a certain level of prison occupancy in order to avoid wasting taxpayer money. This encourages states to sentence more prisoners because they must reach a certain occupancy rate to avoid fines. Therefore, while the largest prison corporations created a combined revenue of $3.5 billion as of 2015, the increase in prisoners costs everybody else.
All in all, whether or not prisoners deserve a liveable wage is not a taxpayer vs prisoner issue but is a people vs corporate America issue. Prisoners undeniably deserve to make enough money to support themselves. Taxpayers should not be blaming these human beings for such high tax rates; they should be blaming the companies that profit from mass incarceration. This is evidently not an easy policy change, but a better understanding of the issue at hand will help Americans make more informed choices when we cast our ballots in the future. In the meantime, there are still smaller actions we can take to boycott prison labor. One important step is that we need to stop incentivizing cheap labor and this starts with refusing to support companies that exploit and profit from prison labor. The Malta Justice Initiative has listed 12 major corporations such as Starbucks, McDonalds’, and Walmart that use prison labor for their benefit. While these companies are powerful, they are not unbeatable. For example, when Whole Foods came under fire for exploiting prison labor, the company was quick to issue a change that no goods made with prison labor would be sold in their stores. Due to this powerful social change, other corporations can follow in suit. Furthermore, donations can be made to nonprofit organizations such as the Prison Policy Initiative that are committed to researching and educating others on the consequences of mass incarceration. The United States tends to give up on our prisoners, but these people are still an integral part of our society. Prisoners deserve to be paid a liveable wage and treated as human beings, not pawns in a capitalist economy.