Skip to content

How Much Do Prisoners Make?

The use of prison labor in the United States has a long and complicated history. While proponents argue it provides job skills and reduces idleness among inmates, critics claim it exploits inmates and takes jobs away from the general population. This article will examine the key facts, issues, and debates around prison labor in the US.

History of Prison Labor

The use of prison labor dates back to the end of the Civil War in 1865. With the 13th Amendment, slavery was abolished except as punishment for a crime. This allowed prisons to force inmates to work without pay.

The convict leasing system started in the South in the late 1800s. Prisons would lease out prisoners to private companies for manual labor. Convict leasing was eventually phased out due to high death rates and abuse. However, prison labor continued in other forms.

In 1979, Congress created the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP) to encourage prisons to provide job skills through labor programs. Under PIECP, prisons partner with private companies to produce goods and services using inmate labor. The inmates are paid prevailing local wages but up to 80% is deducted for room and board, taxes, and victim compensation.

Key Events

  • 1865: 13th Amendment allows prison labor as punishment
  • Late 1800s: Convict leasing system starts in the South
  • 1979: Congress creates PIECP to promote prison labor programs

Today, prison labor exists in various forms in both state and federal prisons. Some key facts:

  • About 8% of US prison inmates work while incarcerated.
  • Over 60% of prisoners work in prison maintenance jobs like laundry, kitchen duty, or cleaning.
  • Roughly 6% participate in state-owned businesses that produce goods sold to government agencies.
  • An estimated 5% work for PIECP programs that produce goods sold in interstate commerce.

Benefits of Prison Labor

Supporters of prison labor programs highlight several intended benefits:

Providing Job Skills

Proponents argue that prison jobs can help inmates gain experience and skills that improve employability after release. Vocational programs in fields like computer coding, construction, and agriculture give prisoners training for in-demand jobs. Supporters say this reduces recidivism.

See also  How Much Does It Cost To Buy a Prison?

Reducing Idleness and Violence

Keeping prisoners occupied and active through labor programs is said to decrease idleness and boredom. This contributes to improved prisoner behavior and facility safety and security. Proponents argue prison labor leads to fewer disciplinary incidents and violence.

Offset Costs to Taxpayers

Prison labor can offset some costs of incarceration, saving taxpayer money. Rather than sitting idle, supporters argue inmates should contribute to their room and board in practical ways through maintaining the facilities. The wages in PIECP programs can provide restitution to victims.

Provide Valuable Services and Goods

Prison labor produces valuable goods and services for governments and consumers. Supporters claim this benefits society, from inmates doing public works to manufacturing consumer goods. They argue prison labor fills needed jobs.

Criticisms of Prison Labor

However, prison labor also faces significant criticisms and ethical concerns:

Exploitation of Captive Workers

The most common complaint is that requiring unpaid or very low paid labor from inmates is exploitative. Critics argue the 13th Amendment loophole allows what is essentially slave labor. Inmates have little choice but to work for pennies an hour.

Increased Recidivism and Lack of Job Skills

Research on the impacts of prison labor on recidivism are mixed. Some studies show no measurable reduction in reoffending rates from prison labor. Many critics argue the work programs do not provide marketable skills or experience. Jobs like food service and laundry have little applicability in the outside job market.

Unfair Competition

Some view prison labor as unfair competition, depressing wages and displacing jobs that would go to law-abiding citizens. The advantage of incredibly low labor costs allows prison-made goods to undercut market prices. This takes business away from companies that hire and pay fairly.

Dangerous and Abusive Conditions

While regulations prohibit forced labor, inmates realistically face strong pressure if not coercion to participate in work programs. Critics argue prison labor can involve abusive practices like unpaid overtime or poor safety conditions leading to high injury rates.

Impact on Communities

The income from prison labor and production of goods often provides no economic benefit to the communities inmates come from. Critics argue the economic benefits go to the state and corporations while poor communities struggling with crime see no compensation.

Oversight and Regulations

Prison labor remains legal due to the exception in the 13th Amendment. However, federal laws place some limits on working conditions and types of jobs:

  • Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) – Requires minimum wages for goods traded across state lines. But inmates are explicitly exempt from minimum wage laws.
  • Ashurst-Sumners Act – Makes it a federal crime to transport prison-made goods across state lines if the labor violates state laws on wages and working conditions.
  • Walsh-Healey Act – Exempts federal contracts from using prison labor.
See also  How Much Time Did R. Kelly Get in Prison?

Many states also have laws regulating compensation for prison labor and working conditions. State corrections officials oversee prison industry programs along with third party accreditors. Still, critics argue regulations are limited and oversight insufficient.

Major Prison Labor Programs

Here are some of the major prison labor programs within both private companies and state-owned businesses:

Federal Prison Industries (UNICOR)

  • Government-owned corporation that employs federal inmates.
  • Inmates produce goods and services such as furniture, clothing, and electronics sold primarily to federal agencies.
  • Inmates earn between $0.23 to $1.15 per hour.

State Prison Industry Programs

  • Many state prisons operate their own businesses and farms that sell products to government agencies.
  • Largest prison industry programs are in California, Arizona, Florida, and Texas.
  • Goods produced include license plates, highway signs, park furniture, janitorial supplies, and more.
  • Inmates typically earn $0.20 to $2.00 per hour.

Private Sector Prison Labor

  • Private corporations hire prisoners through PIECP programs certified by the Department of Justice.
  • Major industries include telemarketing, manufacturing, food packaging, and customer service call centers.
  • Inmates earn prevailing local wages but high deductions result in hourly pay of $0.50 to $1.50 typically.

Prison Farms & Agricultural Work

  • Many prisons operate farms where inmates grow crops and raise livestock.
  • Farm work includes cotton harvesting, cattle ranching, and fruit/vegetable farming.
  • Provides food for correctional facilities lowering costs.
  • Hourly pay averages around $0.40 to $1.00 an hour.

Prison Maintenance, Support Jobs

  • About 60% of prison jobs are in maintenance, kitchens, laundry, cleaning, etc.
  • Essential for the daily functioning and upkeep of facilities.
  • Pay ranges from $0.00 to $0.50 an hour typically.

The table below summarizes key examples of companies that benefit from prison labor either through private contracts or the production of goods for government use:

CompanyIndustryProgram TypeWages
UNICORFederal agenciesGovernment-owned$0.23-$1.15/hr
3M, American AirlinesCall centers, manufacturingPIECP certified$0.50-$1.50/hr
Texas Correctional IndustriesLicense plates, signsState-owned$0.20-$2.00/hr
Walmart, McDonald’sFood production, packagingPIECP certified$0.50-$1.50/hr
Victoria’s SecretClothing manufacturingSubcontractedUnknown
StarbucksCustomer service call centersPIECP certified$0.50-$1.50/hr
Whole FoodsOrganic beef, produceVendor purchasedUnknown

Perspectives on Prison Labor Reform

Ongoing debates continue around reforming prison labor practices in the US. Here are some of the key perspectives:

Ban All Prison Labor

Some advocate banning all prison labor as inherently unethical. They argue it constitutes exploitation especially when inmates lack a choice. Compensation should meet minimum wage laws. This perspective aims to prevent unfair competition and lift labor abuses.

Allow Voluntary Participation

This view supports allowing prison labor but solely on a voluntary basis. Inmates who opt-in can develop job skills but no one is forced to work. Labor unions endorse this as it clarifies free choice and prevents displacing outside workers.

Make Labor Truly Rehabilitative

Some argue prison labor can serve rehabilitative goals if reformed appropriately. This includes fair wages, relevant vocational programs, and worker safety protections. The focus should be readying inmates for employment post-release.

See also  How Much Do For Profit Prisons Make?

Tighten Oversight and Enforcement

Another perspective calls for tighter regulations and stronger enforcement against labor violations. Even with voluntary programs, better oversight is needed of wages, hours, conditions, and safety precautions. Meaningful accreditation processes could raise standards.

Pay Living Wages to Provide Restitution

To make prison labor truly restorative, reformers argue inmate compensation should be living wages. A portion can reimburse the prison system but higher earnings also allow financial restitution to victims and inmate families. This model develops marketable skills that benefit communities.


In summary, prison labor continues to play an important yet controversial role in the US criminal justice system. Supporters argue it provides economic and rehabilitative benefits. However, significant concerns exist around unfair competition, exploitation, and the effectiveness of prison labor programs in preparing inmates for reentry.

Calls persist for reforming the prison labor system to develop truly rehabilitative vocational training that provides inmates with living wages and skills that translate into real employment opportunities after release. However other perspectives argue for banning or tightly restricting prison labor given the inherent ethical issues with compelling captive populations to work for low or no pay.

Ongoing legislative efforts, advocacy campaigns, and prisoner rights lawsuits seek to address the complex challenges posed by the prison labor system in America. How to balance security, cost, restitution to victims, and human rights continues to stir debate around reforming prison work programs and policies.

How much do prisoners make per hour?

Prison wages range widely but are typically $0.20 to $1.50 per hour. Some prison jobs pay nothing at all. Average hourly pay is $0.14-$0.63 for regular maintenance and kitchen jobs. Vocational programs through PIECP pay prevailing local wages but deductions lower take-home pay to around $0.50-$1.50/hr.

What jobs do most prisoners do?

An estimated 60% of prison jobs are basic facility maintenance like kitchen work, laundry, janitorial, and groundkeeping. Roughly 8-10% work in correctional industry programs producing goods and 5-10% have private sector jobs through PIECP. The remainder do public works, farm work, or local service jobs.

Are prisoners really slaves?

While the 13th Amendment prohibits slavery, it explicitly allows forced labor as criminal punishment. In practice, critics argue compulsory, unpaid or very low-paid work under threat of punishment constitutes slavery in all but name. However, proponents claim prisoners still have a choice whether or not to work.

Who profits from prison labor?

Government agencies, state prison systems, private corporations, and consumers all benefit financially from cheap prison labor. Prison industry programs and PIECP provide goods and services at lower costs due to minimal labor expenditures. Corporations profit from discounted production costs and call center services.

How common is forced labor in prisons?

Regulations prohibit coerced, uncompensated labor. But inmates face strong pressure to work with consequences like loss of privileges or solitary confinement for refusing. Critics argue this constitutes de facto forced labor despite technically voluntary policies. Unpaid work remains common in many facilities.

Prison Inside Team

Share this post on social

See also  How Much Does It Cost To Keep Someone In Prison?

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.

See also  How Much Time Did R. Kelly Get in Prison?