Prison labor has been a part of the U.S. economy since at least the late 19th century. Today, it’s a 40 billion dollar a year industry. Incarcerated people do everything from building furniture, making military equipment all the way down to packaging our clothes. Inmates work for little to no money at all and they are not included in National employment statistics. Quite serendipitous when they have difficulty finding employment when they get out isn’t it?

If the idea that prison labor is to create an avenue for an inmate to pay off their debt to society, why are they working for corporations that have been caught with sub-par manufacturing practices?

Here is a short list of corporations that readily use prison labor:

⦁ Walmart
⦁ AT&T
⦁ Whole Foods
⦁ Victoria’s Secret
⦁ Microsoft
⦁ Target
⦁ Starbucks
⦁ Revlon

That’s only a few among 100’s. These corporations have all relied on the labor of incarcerated people. Right now, there are people in prisons all over the country working not only in unsafe environments but without a regimen for rehabilitation, which should be the actual point.

Private Prisons and Unregulated Labor

When incarceration rates soared to record highs in the 1980s and ’90s, some corporations saw this as a business opportunity. They promised lower costs and through profit-sharing agreements. Prison and jail administrators started privatizing everything from food and commissary to entire operations of facilities.

Proponents of for-profit prisons say the government relies on contractors for services it cannot always provide on its own. In 2019, criminal and immigration justice advocates successfully moved nine major banks, including J.P. Morgan and Bank of America, to stop lending money to private prisons.

Today, some of corporate America’s biggest names, and many smaller companies, fight for a share of the $80 billion spent on mass incarceration each year in the U.S., roughly half of which stays in the public sector to pay for staff salaries and some health care costs, according to the Massachusetts-based nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative.

A new report released by a New York-based advocacy group, Worth Rises, detailed some 4,100 corporations that profit from the country’s prisons and jails. It identified corporations that support prison labor directly or through their supply chains. The groups founder and director stated, “The industry behind mass incarceration is bigger than many appreciate. So is the harm they cause and the power they wield”. She went on to say, “They exploit and abuse people with devastating consequences,” and “Of course, they aren’t unilaterally responsible for mass incarceration, but they’re part of the ecosystem propping it up.”

Prison Labor Earnings

The pay for workers in prison can be as low as 20% of their stated wage after garnishment for room and board, restitution and other costs.

The average of the minimum daily wages paid to incarcerated workers for non-industry prison jobs is now 86 cents, down from 93 cents reported in 2001. The average maximum daily wage for the same prison jobs has declined more significantly, from $4.73 in 2001 to $3.45 today (2020). Since 2001, seven have lowered their maximum wages, and South Carolina no longer pays wages for most regular prison jobs. In essence, some prison work is the equivalent of forced volunteering.

Conditions Of Living For Inmates

Prison Conditions

Aside from the abhorrent thought of corporations receiving free labor because inmates must “pay off their debt to society’, an inmate’s condition of living may make you think twice.

According to the ACLU, many inmates experience overcrowding, violence, sexual abuse and unsanitary food preparation. Mistreatment of prisoners based on race, sex, gender identity, or disability also happens far too common. Sub-par medical attention and involuntary medical assessments pose an even greater risk for those suffering with a mental disorder that can labeled as a disorderly inmate.

In Turner vs. Safely (1987), the U.S. Supreme Court made clear that “prison walls do not form a barrier separating inmates from the protections of the Constitution.” Individuals retain certain fundamental rights, even when incarcerated. The Constitution protects these rights for good reason. Incarceration can have a drastic effect on a person. Oftentimes, a prisoner’s connections to their family or religious community may be their only source of hope. Stripped of these connections, a person will not only endure more difficulties during incarceration, but may also lack the community ties necessary to assist them upon release.

What inmates need is rehabilitation, not continuing the cycle of mistreatment. Reform over modern day slavery and an honest pay for work can create the change we need to see.

Corporations are profiting off the deterioration of an individual who is incarcerated and enslaved to them. These conditions are not conducive for them to get back on their feet.

Isn’t it interesting that these same corporations that profit from prison labor at 40 cents an hour will look at that same person dead in the eye and tell them they are unemployable when they get out of prison for a decent living wage? That’s a strong disconnect.