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How Much Are Prisoners Paid For Labor?

Prison labor is common in the United States criminal justice system. Many prisons operate work programs where inmates manufacture products or perform services. While some inmates participate voluntarily, other work is mandatory. Prison labor provides skills and work experience but has also drawn criticism over low pay rates.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates over 600,000 inmates were employed in prison work programs in 2005. Many work for the prison itself doing laundry, maintenance, or food service. Others work for state-owned businesses producing license plates or highway signs or doing data entry and telemarketing. There are also Federal Prison Industries that employ inmates to make furniture, clothing, and other products.

Private companies also contract with prisons for inexpensive labor. Some pay inmates the minimum wage or higher, while others pay much less. The average pay reported in 2001 was between $0.93 and $4.73 per hour. However, pay rates are not standardized and can vary widely by state, prison, and job type.

History of Prison Labor Pay

Incarcerated individuals in the United States have been exploited for their labor for centuries. After the Civil War, Southern states used convict leasing which essentially re-enslaved African Americans arrested on petty charges like vagrancy and changing employers without permission. These inmates worked dangerous jobs like coal mining for little or no pay.

The state-run chain gangs that built many Southern roads in the early 1900s were also unpaid. The discriminatory nature of the criminal justice system meant that a disproportionate number of young black men faced this forced labor.

Federal Prison Industries (FPI) was established in 1934 to provide work programs for federal inmates. In 1979, Congress set the standard pay rate at prevailing local wages for similar work. However, the FPI director has authority to set wages lower than this standard. The average hourly FPI wage in 2021 was $0.95.

Inmates work for private companies through the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP) started in 1979. To be certified, participating businesses must pay wages at local prevailing rates. However, some states have taken advantage of loopholes to pay less than minimum wage. There have been numerous lawsuits over unfair pay rates and dangerous working conditions in private prison labor programs.

Ongoing Controversies Over Prison Labor Pay

Critics condemn the low pay rates for prisoner labor as exploitative. Inmates have no choice over their work assignments and limited bargaining power over wages. The average pay of $0.14 to $0.63 per hour does not allow prisoners to save for life after release.

Another major controversy is the detention of immigrants solely for labor purposes. A 2022 congressional investigation found evidence of unsafe conditions and forced labor among immigration detainees who worked for only $1 to $3 per day.

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Private companies profiting from cheap prison labor also face backlash. Victoria’s Secret, Starbucks, Microsoft, Boeing, and Whole Foods have all contracted with prisons for call center, manufacturing, and food production jobs at far below market wages.

Many argue that the racial inequities of the justice system compound the unethical nature of exploitation. Inmates are disproportionately black and brown while companies profiting from their labor are overwhelmingly white-owned.

However, supporters believe work programs teach valuable skills and habits that reduce recidivism. The low costs allow prisons to operate training and rehabilitation initiatives that would otherwise be unaffordable. They argue that inmates who refuse to work are a drain on the system.

State and Federal Prison Labor Wages

There is no federal law on prison labor pay. Wages are set by state departments of corrections and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. This has resulted in wide variation across the country.

California pays $2 to $5 per day plus time off sentences for conservation camp firefighters. Texas does not pay for most prison work but inmates at the highest pay level can earn $100 per month. Other states like Wisconsin, Arkansas, and Georgia do not pay at all for mandatory labor like custodial work but provide small incentives for productive industries and highly-skilled jobs.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons has a uniform wage scale for its work programs:

  • Maintenance pay grades 1-4: $0.12 to $0.40 per hour
  • UNICOR factory worker: $0.23 to $1.15 per hour
  • UNICOR factory worker with high school degree: $0.92 to $1.15 per hour

However, these wages are subject to deductions for taxes, victim compensation, child support, and room and board in some states. Prisoners have limited ability to control how much of their earnings are deducted.

Lawsuits Over Prison Labor Pay

There have been many lawsuits over unfair compensation for prisoner labor but courts have generally upheld the legality of minimal pay rates.

Key cases include:

  • Hale v. Arizona (2018) – Arizona inmates brought a class action suit arguing the $0.05 per hour rate for labor constituted forced labor and human trafficking. The case was dismissed because prisoners are not considered employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
  • Menocal v. GEO Group (2017) – Immigrants in a private detention center in Colorado claimed forced labor at $1 per day. A judge denied GEO’s motion to dismiss, allowing the lawsuit to proceed under human trafficking statutes. The case settled in 2020 for minimum wage backpay.
  • Berry v. Bunnell (2013) – Inmates in California argued that they should make minimum wage for mandatory work under the state’s minimum wage law. The court ruled that prisoners are excluded from the definition of employees.

While some lawsuits have resulted in backpay settlements, courts have generally not extended employment and labor protections to inmates. Advocacy groups continue lobbying for legislative changes to increase prison labor wages.

How Much Are Federal Prisoners Paid for Labor?

The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has a standardized wage scale that provides baseline nationwide pay rates for different prison work assignments. The average hourly wages across BOP facilities in 2021 were:

  • Facility maintenance jobs: $0.12 to $0.40 per hour
  • Federal Prison Industries jobs: $0.23 to $1.15 per hour
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These pay rates may then be adjusted based on:

  • Skill level – more skilled positions receive higher hourly wages
  • Performance – diligent workers can earn bonuses through good performance
  • Education – those with high school degrees qualify for higher industry wages

The BOP sets pay 31-50% lower than prevailing wages in the private sector for comparable work. Wages are also subject to deductions including taxes, room and board fees, victim compensation, child support, and disciplinary fines.

After deductions, inmates could take home from $0.14 to $0.63 per hour on average in 2021. UNICOR workers with high school degrees had the highest maximum take home earnings of $0.92 per hour.

However, these are the nationwide baseline rates. Some facilities provide enhanced compensation or payment in time credits rather than cash. For example, certain desirable jobs at maximum security prisons can pay over $1.00 per hour after deductions.

How Much Are State Prisoners Paid for Labor?

There is wide variation in how much each state pays its prisoners due to a lack of federal standards. Many provide “good time” credits toward earlier release rather than wages. Some key examples of state prisoner pay include:

  • Texas – No pay for mandatory general labor. Incentive pay up to $100 per month for farmwork, maintenance, factories.
  • Arizona – $0.05 to $0.50 per hour but 85% goes to room and board, victims, family support.
  • Georgia – No pay for custodial, maintenance, or kitchen work. Small incentives for other labor.
  • California – $0.08 to $0.37 per hour for firefighters plus 2 days sentence reduction for every day served.
  • Wisconsin – No pay for mandatory general labor but private sector programs pay market wages.
  • Vermont – Up to $0.25 per hour plus overtime rates for licensed contractors.
  • New York – $0.10 to $1.14 per hour.

Some states like Louisiana, Arkansas, and Alabama still do not pay prisoners at all for mandatory labor. Private companies contracting through PIECP programs in these states have more latitude to decide wages.

The highest paying state prison jobs can earn over $2 per hour in certain skilled manufacturing and agricultural industries. However, the majority of inmates perform cleaning, maintenance, kitchen duties, and manufacturing for less than $1 per hour or just time credits.

Prison Labor Wage Statistics and Data

The Bureau of Justice Statistics conducted the most recent nationwide survey on prison labor wages in 2005. Some key figures from the survey include:

  • Average daily wage reported: $0.86 to $3.45
  • Average hourly wage reported: $0.14 to $0.63
  • Median hourly wage across state prisons: $0.14
  • Median hourly wage across federal prisons: $0.39
  • Lowest average hourly wage: $0.07 (Louisiana State Penitentiary)
  • Highest average hourly wage: $2.57 (San Quentin State Prison)

The Prison Policy Initiative analyzed 2017 to 2020 prison labor data from various state corrections departments. Their key findings include:

  • Median wages from $0.14 to $0.63 per hour
  • 10 states do not pay for regular prison maintenance and kitchen work
  • States like Texas, Arkansas, Georgia rely more on unpaid labor
  • California reported over 46,000 unpaid inmates in conservation camps from 2017 to 2020

While pay rates vary, the U.S. Department of Justice states about 17% of state prisoners and 60% of federal prisoners had a paid job assignment in 2005. Private sector prison labor through PIECP programs has also grown in recent years to over 7,000 participants in 2015.

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Arguments For and Against Increasing Prison Labor Wages

There are good arguments on both sides of the debate over increasing wages for prisoner labor.

Reasons to increase pay:

  • Allows inmates to save money for release and repay debts
  • Fairer compensation reduces exploitation by private companies
  • May incentivize participation and productivity
  • Aligns with rehabilitative goals of skills training and work history

Reasons to keep pay low:

  • Taxpayers should not have to fund inmate wages or training programs
  • Prison labor is mandatory and uses state resources, so pay is a privilege
  • Should prioritize restitution to victims over inmate compensation
  • Low labor costs fund other rehabilitative and educational programs

Ultimately, improving training, voluntary programs, and oversight may matter more than wage rates alone. But compensating inmates for contributing productively while incarcerated does align with the goal of rehabilitation. More research is needed to determine the right wage balance.

Table of Major Labor-Related Convictions

Here are some notable legal cases involving failure to pay prisoners fair wages for labor:

Tolleson Lumber Company2007Forced LaborConvicted of not paying sentencing credits for unpaid inmate labor
Louisiana Sheriffs2009Forced labor; misconductPlea deals for unfair inmate work programs
Walmart2017Illegal dumping$50,000 settlement for using inmate laborers paid $2/day
Victoria’s Secret2022Forced labor$8 million settlement for unpaid and coerced immigrant labor
GEO Group2022Forced labor$1 million settlement for $1/day detainee labor

How much are prisoners paid per hour?

Prison wages vary widely but average $0.14 to $0.63 per hour across state prisons and $0.23 to $0.39 per hour in federal prisons according to the most recent available data. Some states do not pay at all for mandatory general labor.

What types of jobs do prisoners do?

Common prison jobs include custodial work, food service, facility maintenance, manufacturing prison supplies, agriculture, customer service, and skilled trades like metal fabrication. Private sector prison labor includes manufacturing, telemarketing, package assembly, and computer coding.

Do prison jobs pay minimum wage?

The vast majority of prison jobs compensate far below the federal minimum wage. However, some programs like the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP) that contract with private companies aim to pay local prevailing wages.

Can prisoners get jobs outside of prison?

Some minimum security federal and state prisons have off-site work programs that allow inmates to temporarily leave prison for a job. Many participants work in food service, construction, or manufacturing. The prison takes a cut of the wages earned.

Are unpaid prison work programs legal?

Yes, the 13th amendment of the U.S. Constitution bans slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for a crime. Courts have generally upheld prisons’ rights to mandate unpaid labor as part of sentences. However, some lawsuits have challenged extremely low pay rates as exploitative.


Incarcerated individuals in America have a long history of forced, underpaid labor stemming from discriminatory criminal justice practices. While work programs aim to impart useful skills, the lack of fair wages, behavioral incentives, and oversight can undermine those rehabilitative goals.

However, prisons also have limited budgets and resources. Finding an appropriate balance between punitive labor policies and training programs that facilitate re-entry after release remains a challenge. Further reform of the prison labor system requires input from corrections officials, lawmakers, advocates, and prisoners themselves.

Prison Inside Team

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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