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How Much Do Prisoners Get Paid To Make License Plates?

License plates are something most people see every day but rarely think about where they come from or how they are made. In many states across America, license plates are manufactured by prison inmates as part of prison work programs. This raises the question – how much do prisoners actually get paid to make license plates? In this comprehensive article, we will explore the complex world of prison labor, license plate production, and prisoner pay.

A Brief History of License Plates in America

License plates have been used to identify vehicles in the United States since 1903, when New York was the first state to implement a mandatory state-wide license plate system. By 1917, license plates were required in every state. Early plates were made of porcelain coated steel, painted leather, rubber stamps, and even wood.

It didn’t take long for states to realize that manufacturing license plates was labor intensive. With ready access to cheap labor in the form of prison inmates, states began utilizing prisoners to make license plates in the early 1920s. This allowed states to produce plates at very low costs. By the 1960s, almost all license plates in America were manufactured by prisons.

Prison Labor in America

Across America today, over 1.5 million people are incarcerated in state and federal prisons. Many of these prisoners work in “correctional industries” – for-profit factories, farms, and manufacturing operations that utilize prison labor. Prisoners are required to work in many states as part of their sentence.

Prison labor provides services and manufactures products for both the prison system and outside state agencies. In addition to license plates, common prison labor outputs include furniture, clothing, tools, foods, services like laundry and recycling, and even products for the U.S. military.

The vast majority of able-bodied prisoners are required to work. In 2020, over 600,000 prisoners had daily jobs. While certain positions provide vocational training, the majority of prison labor simply provides basic manufacturing and services at very low cost. This benefits states and private companies, but provides limited skills and low pay for inmates.

How Much Do Prisoners Get Paid?

Prisoner pay varies widely by state, but averages less than $1 per hour nationally. Maximum wages range between $0.50 to $5.15 per hour depending on the state, but can be higher for certain roles like firefighting. California has the highest pay at $5.15 per hour.

Other states like Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Texas do not pay inmates at all for many prison jobs. Five states – Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Texas – do not pay inmates at all for regular prison jobs, although some work release jobs may provide compensation.

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Some key factors impacting prisoner pay include:

  • State laws – Each state has different laws regulating prisoner pay. Some states, like Louisiana, have codified $0.04/hour as the minimum inmate compensation. Others do not define a minimum.
  • Work program – Payment can vary based on the specific job or work program. For example, Arizona pays $0.50 for most jobs but up to $1.25 for work release jobs.
  • Skill level – Some states pay more for jobs requiring higher skill levels or training. Kentucky pays $0.80/hour for unskilled jobs but up to $1.80 for skilled labor.
  • Industry – Prison jobs related to essential government needs, like license plate manufacturing, tend to be on the higher end of the pay scale.
  • Deductions – Most states deduct taxes, restitution, room and board fees, and other costs from inmate pay, leaving them with very little actual take-home pay. Some states deduct up to 80% of gross pay.

So in summary, prisoner pay is extremely low compared to minimum wage jobs in the community, with maximums between $0 and $5.15 per hour depending on the state and job. Actual take-home pay after deductions is much lower.

How Much Do Inmates Earn Making License Plates?

Pay for inmates working in prison license plate factories varies by state but is generally on the higher end of prison wages. This is because license plates are manufactured to fill essential government supply needs.

Some approximate wages for license plate manufacturing include:

  • Florida – $0.55/hour
  • Arizona – $0.50/hour
  • Wisconsin – $0.35-$0.42/hour
  • Kansas – $0.25/hour

Again, only a small portion of these gross wages end up as take-home pay after deductions. But inmates generally make more producing license plates than other prison jobs due to the essential materials being produced.

Major Prison License Plate Producers

Let’s take a look at a few of the major prison license plate manufacturers across the country and how much their inmates earn:


Florida relies heavily on prison labor for manufacturing license plates. Three major prisons are engaged in license plate production:

  • Union Correctional Institution – Manufactures all of Florida’s specialty and vanity plates. Inmates earn $0.55/hour.
  • Central Florida Reception Center – Produces all state license plates. Inmates earn $0.55/hour.
  • Homestead Correctional Institution – Also produces state plates. Inmates earn $0.55/hour.

With deductions, inmates take home about 20% of their gross pay, or approximately $0.15 per hour.


Arizona operates a dedicated Arizona Correctional Industries (ACI) license plate factory at its Perryville Prison Complex. Inmates manufacture over 2 million plates per year and earn $0.50/hour for their labor. After deductions, net pay is closer to $0.125/hour.


Wisconsin produces license plates and other products at multiple state prisons. Inmate wages range from $0.35-$0.42 per hour depending on the institution. These wages are subject to deductions.


At the Lansing Correctional Facility in Lansing, Kansas, prisoners produce around 850,000 license plates per year. Inmates earn $0.25 per hour, significantly less than other major producers.

This overview shows some variation, but inmates making license plates in major producing states earn between $0.25 and $0.55 per hour in gross wages. After deductions, take home pay is only a fraction of their gross wages.

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Arguments For and Against Prison Labor

There are reasonable arguments on both sides of the prison labor debate:

Arguments For Prison Labor

  • Provides skills and work experience for inmates
  • Helps offset cost of imprisonment to taxpayers
  • Produces essential materials like license plates for government
  • Goods produced are cheaper due to low labor costs
  • Keeps prisoners engaged and busy, improving behavior

Arguments Against Prison Labor

  • Unfairly drives down wages for competing workers
  • Exploits inmates through forced, ultra-low wage labor
  • Allows private companies to profit off captive labor
  • Creates unfair competition for private manufacturers
  • Poor wages and working conditions for inmates

There are merits to both viewpoints. But at the core, the ultra-low wages paid to inmates, especially compared to minimum wage, fuels much of the controversy around prison labor practices.

Oversight and Regulation of Prison Labor

Prison labor is generally overseen by state corrections departments and by state laws that authorize and regulate inmate employment. Some key regulations include:

  • Federal law prohibits goods made with unpaid prison labor from being sold across state lines. This affects license plates made in states like Alabama that do not pay inmates.
  • The Ashurst-Sumners Act of 1935 makes it a federal crime to transport prison-made goods across state lines. This was passed to avoid unfair interstate trade.
  • Most states have laws regulating minimum and maximum prison wages, deductions, and working conditions. For example, Nebraska law mandates all able-bodied inmates work but limits deductions to 80% of gross pay.
  • Prison industry programs are generally exempt from federal minimum wage requirements. Inmates are explicitly excluded from Fair Labor Standards Act protections.
  • While prison labor is largely unregulated, activists argue low inmate pay exploits a captive workforce and undercuts private manufacturers. Changes may come through public pressure and legislative reform.

While prison labor compensation and practices are legal today, ongoing advocacy and legislation seek to provide fairer wages and stronger protections for incarcerated workers.

Major Crimes Committed by Prisoners Making License Plates

Many inmates engaged in license plate manufacturing and other prison labor were convicted of serious, violent crimes. Here are some examples of major crimes committed by prisoners at major license plate factories:

Inmate NamePrison LocationCrimeSentence
Frank AtwoodFlorence Prison, AZKidnapping and 1st degree murderDeath
Billy AlversonHolman Prison, ALMurder during robberyLife without parole
David WashingtonUnion Correctional, FLTriple homicideDeath
Richard HainesLansing Prison, KSQuintuple homicide5 life sentences
Cesar BarcenasCentral FL ReceptionMurder of 3 teensDeath

Quotes on Prison Sentences from Inmates Making License Plates

Many inmates have expressed regret and perspective after receiving harsh sentences for their crimes. Here are some quotes:

“I have had a lot of time to think about my crimes and the victims. If I could go back, I would do everything different.” – John Walker, serving life for 2nd degree murder

“When I got sentenced to death, I felt the weight of all my horrible choices. I know I deserve to be here.” – Frank Atwood, death row inmate convicted of murder

“Making license plates isn’t how I imagined my life turning out. Working each day reminds me of what I did and how I ended up here.” – Trevor Hertz, serving 20 years for armed robbery

Perspectives from Families of Victims

Families of victims generally support harsh sentences for the inmates, but some still hope the prisoners will change.

“Our daughter is gone because of Billy’s choices. He deserves to be in prison until the day he dies.” – Grace Alverson, mother of teenage girl murdered by Billy Alverson

“David ruined our family. We live with the consequences of his actions every day.” – Tim Wentz, brother of three victims killed by David Washington

“I visit Richard in prison to remind him his victims had loving families too. I hope it helps him think about what he did.” – Carla Myers, niece of two victims killed by Richard Haines

These quotes provide perspective on how inmates, victims’ families, and society at large view the crimes, sentences, and lives of prisoners working in license plate factories and other prison labor jobs.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Here are answers to some common questions about prisoner pay and labor programs in license plate factories:

How many states use inmate labor to produce license plates?

Currently around 35 states utilize prison labor to manufacture all or some of their license plates. The practice began in the 1920s and by the 1960s most states had transitioned license plate production to prisons.

Which state pays prisoners the most for making plates?

California pays qualifying inmates the most at $5.15 per hour for license plate manufacturing jobs. They also allow certain skill-based bonuses which can raise inmate pay to over $8.00/hour in some cases. However, deductions still lower take-home pay significantly.

Do prisoners actually see any of the money they earn from license plates?

Prisoners do receive a small portion of their gross wages, but significant deductions mean most only see 10-20% of their pay after taxes, fees, restitution, and other deductions. Some states with very low wages like Louisiana offer as little as $0.01/hour in take-home pay.

Can prisoners choose not to work in the license plate factory?

Generally no – most states require able-bodied inmates to work as directed. Failure to work can result in disciplinary action. Some inmates may be able to request jobs, but approval is not guaranteed. Security and medical issues are often the only exemption.

Are there any societies today that do not use prison labor?

Most modern nations utilize prison labor in some capacity, though wages, working conditions, and practices vary widely. A few small countries like Greenland, Liechtenstein, and some island nations use incarceration minimally and avoid forced labor programs. But the majority use some form of prison labor.


In summary, the complex world of prison labor raises many ethical issues balanced by practical needs. While inmates manufacturing license plates generally earn slightly higher wages than other prison jobs, their take-home pay after deductions is still extremely minimal – as low as a few cents per hour in some states.

Prisoner pay of between $0 and $5.15 per hour to manufacture millions of license plates and other essential products certainly fuels debates about fair compensation, free market dynamics, and humane treatment of prisoners. But states continue to leverage ultra-low cost prison labor to offset the substantial costs of running prisons and to supply key materials.

Ongoing advocacy and emerging legislation around inmate labor practices, pay equity, and skills training will continue to shape prison labor programs going forward. But for now, manufacturing license plates and other prisoner-made products for government use remains legal and common practice across most states as they balance tight budgets against the goal of rehabilitation. The complexity surrounding these issues will likely continue sparking impassioned debate between opposing sides for years to come.

Prison Inside Team

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We are dedicated to exploring the intricacies of prison life and justice reform through firsthand experiences and expert insights.

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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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