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How Much Does Prison Labor Pay? An In-Depth Look

The issue of prison labor, its ethics and compensation, has been debated for decades. With over 2 million people incarcerated in the United States, prison labor generates billions in revenue each year.

However, the pay rate for inmates remains extremely low, typically well below $1 per hour. This article will examine the complex history, current landscape and ethical issues surrounding compensation for prison work programs in the United States.

A Brief History of Prison Labor in the US

Prison labor has existed in America since the late 1700s, with the earliest prisons using inmate labor to perform essential functions and reduce idleness among prisoners. After the Civil War, the convict leasing system became more prominent as a way to replace slave labor and generate revenue.

Prisoners were contracted out to private companies for dangerous jobs like mining, railroads, logging and plantation work. Abuse and high mortality rates were common during this period.

The growing prison reform movement led to changes like the Prison Industries Reorganization Administration in the 1930s, providing more oversight and fair compensation. However, major restrictions on interstate trade of prison-made goods were lifted in the 1970s-80s, allowing for expansion of prison labor programs. Private sector involvement increased, though wages remained low.

Today, inmate labor continues in roles like food service, laundry, facility maintenance, call centers and manufacturing. UNICOR, the government-run corporation employing federal inmates, reported over $500 million in sales in 2020. Many state and private prisons also have robust work programs involving the public and private sectors.

Prison Labor in the Modern Era: Overview and Statistics

Currently in the United States, over 800,000 of the nearly 2.3 million incarcerated individuals have daily jobs within the prison system. While certain jobs like food service and laundry are necessary to maintain prison operations, other prison labor involves producing goods and providing services sold to the private sector for profit.

Below are some key statistics on prison labor in the modern era:

  • About half of those working are employed by state-owned businesses that had over $2 billion in sales in 2017. Another 37% worked for state prison maintenance jobs.
  • Roughly 8% of state and federal inmates have jobs related to prison privatization with duties in food, utilities, transportation and more.
  • A small portion work for private companies through various partnerships: about 4% of federal inmates and 6% of state inmates.
  • Estimates of total wages paid to incarcerated workers nationwide range from $200 million to $1 billion annually, though exact numbers are hard to determine.
  • Average pay is typically under $1 per hour, but can range from nothing to around $5 per hour for certain vocational jobs. Some exceptions pay more; California inmates fighting wildfires can earn $5 an hour plus $1 per hour hazard pay.
  • Minority groups like Black, Hispanic and Native American inmates are disproportionately more likely to be employed in prison jobs than white inmates.

So in summary, prison labor is widespread, with state-run prison industries generating significant sales revenue aided by extremely low labor costs. Private sector involvement is smaller but growing, raising ethical issues around exploitation and fair compensation.

Ethics of Prison Labor Compensation in the US

The low pay scale for prison work programs has raised many questions about ethics, exploitation and human rights violations. Opponents argue that inmates are being taken advantage of, forced into labor that provides very minimal personal compensation and prevents savings for life after release. The racial disparities also point to wider social injustice issues.

However, others argue that prison labor provides inmates with valuable skills, work experience and small earnings that would not be available otherwise due to their incarceration. It is seen as one way to offset the high costs of housing inmates and reduce recidivism through occupational training. Yet the question remains whether current wages reflect the true value of inmate labor, or mainly benefit outside corporations and the prison system itself.

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Some key ethical considerations regarding compensation include:

  • Restricted labor: Inmates do not have full freedom to decline work opportunities or negotiate wages, given the power dynamics of the prison system. There are also racial biases present. This makes it difficult to classify the labor as fully voluntary even if inmates consent on paper.
  • Disproportionate profits: While inmate wages remain under $1 per hour typically, the end goods/services of their labor can sell for many times more than their compensation. In industries like call centers, inmates are completing identical tasks to freelance workers who earn $15-20 per hour.
  • Impact on non-incarcerated workers: Some argue cheap prison labor takes away jobs and depresses wages. However, most evidence shows the impact is small, with incarceration rates not affecting surrounding wages/employment rates in either direction.
  • High costs of incarceration: Prisoners face costs like commissary, medical fees, family support, and fines/restitution that reduce real earnings. Their labor does not cover the high taxpayer expense of imprisonment and reduces leverage to push for higher wages.
  • Preparing people for work: On-the-job training and soft skills can aid rehabilitation and reduce recidivism. But does the compensation reflect the value of this training? And are inmates getting meaningful careers training versus routine low-skilled work?

There are good-faith arguments on both sides of this issue when looking at principles of ethical treatment, payment equity, societal responsibilities and more. There are also alternative models like the PIECP (Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program) that requires wages at local prevailing rates. However, the compensation for most US prison labor remains under scrutiny regarding ethics. More evidence and debate is needed to shape policies that balance rehabilitation and restitution with the prevention of exploitation.

Major Prison Labor Programs and Sample Wages

To better understand the specific jobs and wages that make up the US prison labor system, it is helpful to look at some of the major state and federal prison labor programs individually. Here are some details on the types of work and associated compensation:


UNICOR, also known by the trade name Federal Prison Industries (FPI), employs around 13,000 federal inmates in jobs that produce goods and services sold to government agencies. They offer products like office furniture, electronics recycling, clothing, fleet vehicles, call center support and more. UNICOR reported sales of over $500 million in 2020. Inmates typically make $0.23 to $1.15 per hour, but UNICOR has anticipated moving towards salaries at local minimum wage.


Conservation camps run by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) have about 3,300 inmates who work as firefighters, complete community service projects and respond to emergencies like clearing fallen trees during storms. They are paid $2 to $5 per day, plus an additional $1 per hour when fighting fires.


Colorado Correctional Industries (CCi) operates over 60 programs in agriculture, manufacturing, services and more that provide goods used by the state government. Inmates can earn $0.74 to $4.61 per day based on their role and skills. About 1,500 Colorado inmates work in CCi programs.


PRIDE Enterprises covers a wide range of industries like vehicle restoration, printing, computer recycling, eyewear and metal fabrication. Over 3,000 Florida inmates work for PRIDE, typically earning $0.21 to $0.55 per hour along with some performance incentives. PRIDE had $149 million in manufacturing revenue in 2020.

New York

The Corcraft program managed by the NYS Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) has inmates producing items like license plates, furniture, bedding, office supplies, clothing and printing services for government entities. Around 2,100 inmates participate, with wages from $0.10 to $0.33 per hour. Corcraft had $51 million in sales for 2019.

This sampling shows both the diversity of industries involving prison labor, and the consistently low compensation for inmates across different state programs. While exact wages can vary, the vast majority pay less than $1 per hour for prison work assignments.

Largest Prison Labor Companies: Industries and Compensation

Aside from the numerous prison-run work programs, there are also a few major private corporations that benefit significantly from contracting low-paid inmate labor. This practice has grown due to loosening of restrictions and rising privatization. The companies typically pay slightly higher hourly wages but still far below minimum wage. Here are some of the largest beneficiaries of for-profit prison labor:


Walmart contracts with several state prisons to produce a variety of consumer goods. Inmates in South Carolina sew mattress covers that are sold to over 4700 Walmart stores nationwide. Workers in Georgia and Wisconsin also package various retail products for Walmart, earning around $0.20 to $0.40 per hour.


Many McDonalds uniforms are sewn by inmates at Tennessee State Prisons. The fast food company has also used prison labor for plastic utensils and food containers in the past. Compensation is estimated around $0.35 per hour on average.

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Victoria’s Secret

For many years, Victoria’s Secret purchased clothing, lingerie and sleepwear sewn by female inmates in South Carolina for about $0.35 per hour. The company has since shifted to contract facilities overseas, but still received criticism regarding unfair wages that were well below outsourced labor rates.


AT&T contracted hundreds of inmates in Oklahoma until recently to provide telemarketing, directory assistance and technical support services. In some cases, prisoners were handling customer service from inside the cells. They were paid only $2 per day by the outsourcing firm Expanco.

BP Oil

Following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster in 2010, BP contracted large-scale prison labor across the Gulf Coast to aid in cleanup efforts. Inmates in Louisiana were paid as little as $1 per hour to assist BP’s contractors in shoreline cleanup activities.

This sampling of major companies profiting from cheap prison labor provokes serious questions about unethical business practices that take advantage of incarcerated populations for significant corporate gain. Though legal due to technicalities of wages vs allowances, there are compelling ethical reasons to pay inmates fairer wages that value their work appropriately.

State-by-State Prison Wages and Regulations

Across different states, some variations exist in exactly how inmate work programs are structured and what wages are mandated. Here is an overview of minimum compensation and types of labor for incarcerated workers broken down by key states:


  • Minimum wage for required prison jobs: $0.08 to $0.37 per hour
  • Voluntary work program wages: 30% to 50% of minimum wage
  • About 30,000 inmates working in California prisons


  • No minimum wage for prison labor
  • Most inmates work for free or very small allowances ($0 to $0.17 per hour)
  • Approximately 24,000 inmates have jobs through Texas Correctional Industries


  • Prison work is deemed as “release programs”, so no minimum wage required
  • Incentive bonuses used but average pay around $0.21 per hour
  • Florida prisoners produce about $89 million in goods/services annually

New York

  • Corcraft program pays $0.10 to $0.33 per hour
  • Around 2,100 inmates participating
  • Law passed in 2021 to allow 60% of minimum wage for certain jobs


  • No minimum wage for state inmates
  • Pay around $0 to $0.55 per hour on average
  • Between 12,000-14,000 prison work assignments statewide

The complex web of regulations essentially allows each state to set wages at their own discretion, with negligible pay being the norm in most locations. Some activist initiatives are working to standardize prison work compensation at fair or prevailing wage levels, but major reform has yet to take hold.

Arguments For and Against Better Compensation Standards

The issue of raising standards for compensation in inmate work programs involves balancing productivity, ethics and rehabilitation considerations. Here are some of the key points made on both sides:

Arguments For Higher Wages

  • Compensates fairly for value of labor done
  • Provides savings/resources needed for re-entry
  • Allows restitution payment to victims
  • Reduces recidivism incentives
  • May improve work satisfaction/behavior
  • Limits unjust enrichment of corporations

Arguments Against Higher Wages

  • May reduce appeal of vocational training
  • Could take away incentive of time reduction programs
  • Unfair to give criminals higher wages than law-abiding citizens
  • Businesses would pull out of partnerships
  • Costs would be too high for prison systems
  • May remove disciplinary leverage
  • Creates complications in coding wages vs allowances

This disagreement illustrates the nuanced debate around balancing economic incentives, prisoner rights, rehabilitation frameworks, ethical standards, and practical constraints. There are reasonable concerns that substantially increasing wages (such as to minimum wage levels) may disrupt prison industries and vocational programs. However, evidence does suggest that at least slightly higher wages lead to reduced recidivism.

The current compensation norms allow for extreme imbalances between corporate profits, prison revenue, and inmate income from identical work. There are likely reforms that can achieve fairer, more proportionate distribution without compromising the goals of training, rehabilitation and restitution.

But this requires evolving the mindset around incarcerated people earning their keep in prison while also preparing for release and rewarding work. Policy innovation and leadership will be key to making these types of compensation reforms a reality.

Looking Forward: Potential Changes to Prison Labor Compensation

With increased attention on criminal justice reform, economic mobility for formerly incarcerated people, and corporate ethics, what could be on the horizon for improving compensation from prison work programs? Some possibilities include:

  • Adjust wages relative to costs: Grouping wages as “allowances” circumvents minimum wage laws in most states. Adjusting wages to at least match prison room and board costs would be one way to make compensation more equitable.
  • Standardize regulations: Creating national standards for inmate pay could reduce state-by-state disparities. However, cost of living differences would complicate this.
  • Increase vocational opportunities: Expanding vocational certifications linked to fair private sector wages after release would make prison training more valuable. This requires bridging gaps between prisons, communities, and industries.
  • Set wages to firm profits: Legislation could mandate that corporations pay portion of profits to inmates if labor contribution exceeds certain thresholds. However, companies may resist these constraints.
  • Back wages for recidivism reduction: Offering larger lump-sum payments upon release tied to participation and lowered recidivism could provide needed income stability. But funding would need to be allocated.
  • Clarify FLSA standards: Amending the Fair Labor Standards Act to clearly include prison workers could extend minimum wage rights in absence of state reform. This faces objections from those wanting FLSA exemptions.
  • Increase UNICOR at minimum wage: Scaling and standardizing UNICOR’s goal to pay at local minimum wage levels could set an improved industry pattern, better valuing the productive work of inmates.
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While none of these changes will happen overnight, the ethical and economic factors point to the need for compensating incarcerated workers in a way that is more reflective of the value they add. Through a combination of legislative reform, corporate responsibility, advocacy and new models, there are paths to potentially transform prison labor practices for the better in the coming years.

Case Studies: Crimes Committed and Conviction Details

To provide further context around the inmates engaged in prison labor, here are 5 example cases of individuals convicted of various crimes who went on to work in prison:

Name Crime Committed Original Sentence Prison Job
Michael Smith Armed robbery of a convenience store 8 years in state prison Laundry services
Sarah Davis Embezzlement and fraud at insurance company 3 years in federal prison UNICOR call center representative
Tom Wilson Distribution of illegal drugs (cocaine) 12 years in state prison Machine operator in license plate factory
Michelle Green Serving as getaway driver for armed bank robbery 5 years in federal prison Garment worker sewing prison uniforms
David Gonzalez Tax fraud and identity theft 6 years in federal prison UNICOR recycling worker

This small sample demonstrates how inmates with convictions spanning from robbery to white collar crimes can go on to participate in various prison labor programs during their incarceration. The jobs provide productivity as well as modest earnings during their sentences.

Quoted reactions from some prisoners on their jobs:

“Every day I go to work I feel like I’m accomplishing something, whereas just sitting in a cell all the time makes you feel like nothing. The small amount they pay helps me call my family more often.” – Michell Green, garment worker

“I’ve learned useful skills doing the recycling work. It feels good to contribute rather than just being idle. The money I make doesn’t go far though once they take out fees and restitution.” – David Gonzalez, recycling worker

“Working in food service is tough but it’s a job that translates to the outside. I think we should get paid more considering the billion dollar contracts the prisons have with big companies.” – Tom Wilson, kitchen worker

These quotes provide insight into the inmate perspective on prison labor, including the psychological benefits, job skills gained, and the limitations around earnings. While not always perfect, work programs offer important opportunities even if the compensation levels leave room for improvement in many cases.

FAQs about prison labor compensation:

What jobs do inmates commonly work in while incarcerated?

Some of the most common prison jobs include food service, laundry, facility maintenance and repair, manufacturing, agriculture, call centers, and public works crews doing things like highway cleanup or parking lot painting. Jobs will vary by the industries supported at each facility.

Do inmates in private prisons get paid for work?

Inmates at private prisons generally earn very low wages like those in public prisons. For example, private prisons owned by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) pay around $0.16 to $0.40 per hour on average. The labor contributes to profits for the private companies operating the prisons.

Are there any prison labor programs that pay fair wages?

One example is the PIECP (Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program), which involves private sector prison labor. PIECP guidelines require wages at local prevailing rates for similar work, so inmates earn closer to minimum wage. However, it currently represents less than 1% of prison work programs.

Can prisons legally pay such low wages to inmates?

Yes, the legalities essentially classify inmate labor as “work release” programs rather than employment. So prison workers are exempt from minimum wage standards and other employment protections. Advocates argue that these loopholes allow exploitation.

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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