From the moment they enter the prison gates, incarcerated people lose the right to refuse to work. This is because the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects against slavery and involuntary servitude, explicitly excludes from its reach those held in confinement due to a criminal conviction. The roots of modern prison labor can be found in the ratification of this exception clause at the end of the Civil War, which disproportionately encouraged the criminalization and effective re-enslavement of Black people during the Jim Crow era, with impacts that persist to this day.
Today, more than 76 percent of incarcerated workers surveyed by the Bureau of Justice Statistics say that they are required to work or face additional punishment such as solitary confinement, denial of opportunities to reduce their sentence, and loss of family visitation. They have no right to choose what type of work they do and are subject to arbitrary, discriminatory, and punitive decisions by the prison administrators who select their work assignments.
U.S. law also explicitly excludes incarcerated workers from the most universally recognized workplace protections. Incarcerated workers are not covered by minimum wage laws or overtime protection, are not afforded the right to unionize, and are denied workplace safety guarantees.
Incarcerated workers typically earn little to no pay at all, with many making just pennies an hour. They earn, on average, between 13 cents and 52 cents per hour nationwide. Wages remain stagnant for years, even decades. In seven states, incarcerated workers are not paid at all for the vast majority of work assignments.
Yet even these abysmal wages are not theirs to keep. The government takes up to 80 percent of these wages for “room and board,” court costs, restitution, and other fees like building and sustaining prisons. These wage deductions generally leave incarcerated workers with less than half of their gross pay. Workers are left with even less disposable income because prison systems charge incarcerated people exorbitant costs for basic necessities, like phone calls to loved ones, hygiene products, and medical care. Almost 70 percent of surveyed incarcerated workers said they were not able to afford basic necessities with their prison wages.
Because incarcerated workers’ wages are so low, families already struggling from the loss of income when a family member is incarcerated must step in to financially support an incarcerated loved one. Families with an incarcerated loved one spend $2.9 billion a year on commissary accounts and phone calls, and more than half of these families are forced to go into debt to afford these costs.
At the same time, incarcerated workers produce real value for prison systems and state governments, the system’s primary beneficiaries. Nationally, incarcerated workers produce more than $2 billion per year in goods and more than $9 billion per year in services for the maintenance of the prisons.
More than 80 percent of prison laborers do prison maintenance work, which offsets the costs of our bloated prison system. Many prison workers are assigned to general janitorial duties like sweeping or mopping, while others are assigned to grounds maintenance, food preparation, laundry, and other work to maintain the very prisons that confine them.
Another 8 percent of incarcerated workers, assigned to public works projects, maintain cemeteries, school grounds, and parks; do road work; construct buildings; clean government offices; clean up landfills and hazardous spills; undertake forestry work; and more. At least 30 states explicitly include incarcerated workers as a labor resource in their emergency operations plans for disasters and emergencies. Incarcerated firefighters also fight wildfires in at least 14 states.
State-owned businesses employ 6.5 percent of incarcerated workers and produce over $2 billion in goods and services sold to other state entities annually. Less than 1 percent of workers are assigned to work for private companies, which generally offer higher pay but are still subject to exorbitant wage deductions.
Prisons spend less than 1 percent of their budgets to pay wages to incarcerated workers, yet spend more than two-thirds of their budgets to pay prison staff. The revenues from commodities and services generated by imprisoned laborers prevent policy makers and the public from reckoning with the true fiscal costs of mass incarceration. Some government officials have even voiced opposition to efforts to reduce prison and jail populations precisely because it would reduce the incarcerated workforce.
Dangerous work conditions and preventable injuries
A majority of incarcerated workers surveyed say that they received no formal job training, and many also say they worry about their safety while working. Incarcerated workers with minimal experience or training are often assigned hazardous work in unsafe conditions and without standard protective gear, leading to preventable injuries and deaths. Prisons don’t keep good records on the number of incarcerated workers injured on the job, but California reported more than 600 injuries in its state prison industry program over a four-year period. Because of poor data collection, this number likely underestimates the true impact of prison work on the health and safety of incarcerated workers.
Workplace safety and labor laws explicitly exempt prison laborers from the protections that virtually all other workers enjoy. Incarcerated people sometimes work in inherently dangerous conditions that would be closely regulated by health and safety regulations and inspectors if they were not incarcerated. Some are exposed to dangerous toxins on the job. In numerous cases we documented nationwide, injuries could have been prevented with proper training, machine guarding mechanisms, or personal protective equipment that would be standard in workplaces outside prisons.
What needs to change
We must push both state and federal lawmakers and prison authorities to eliminate laws and policies that punish incarcerated workers who are unable or unwilling to work. This will ensure that prison work is voluntary, and that people who refuse are not held in solitary or denied other benefits because they don’t want to — or can’t — work on behalf of the state.
We also need to guarantee incarcerated workers the same labor and wage protections as everyone else. This includes minimum wage, health and safety standards, the ability to unionize, protection from discrimination, and speedy access to redress when their rights are violated.
We must raise incarcerated workers’ wages and limit wage deductions. By paying incarcerated workers the state minimum wage, they will be able to pay for necessary expenses like child support, phone calls home, and commissary costs, while supporting their families and saving for eventual reentry into the society.
Prison workers deserve dignity. They should be properly trained for the work they perform, and we should be investing in programs that provide incarcerated workers with marketable skills that will help them find employment after release and eliminate barriers to employment and release.
Finally, we must push lawmakers to amend the U.S. Constitution to abolish the 13th Amendment exclusion that allows slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime. The 20 states with similar exclusion clauses in their constitutions should also repeal them. It’s past time to end slavery in all its forms — including in prisons.