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How Much Money Does Prison Labor Generate?

Prison labor is a controversial topic in the United States criminal justice system. While proponents argue it provides job skills and offsets incarceration costs, critics claim it exploits inmate workers and takes jobs from the public. This article will analyze how much money prison labor generates overall, look at opposing viewpoints, and review reform efforts.

The Scale of Prison Labor in the US

Over 2.2 million adults were incarcerated in US prisons and jails in 2020. A significant number participate in prison labor programs. The Prison Policy Initiative estimates over 800,000 inmates have daily jobs. So how much do these prison work programs produce?

Financial Impact

  • Prison labor generates over $11 billion in goods and services annually according to a 2017 estimate, though exact figures are hard to calculate.
  • Federal Prison Industries, also known as UNICOR, reported sales of $453 million in 2020 from inmate work through 83 factories.
  • States with major prison labor industries include California, Florida, Georgia, and Texas. Sales range from $30 to $150 million annually for each state’s correctional industries.
  • While prison labor represents a small portion of the US economy, it is a billion-dollar industry when looking at combined sales revenue.

Labor Force Comparison

  • To put the scale of prison labor in perspective, over 800,000 inmates working full time is on par with the entire US automobile and truck manufacturing industry labor force.
  • Prison workers, however, are paid far less than other industries and do not have the same rights.

This huge prison labor force allows correctional industries to generate substantial profits, but also raises concerns about unfair competition and exploitation.

Arguments Supporting Prison Labor

Proponents of prison labor programs argue they provide positive impacts for inmates, prisons, taxpayers, and even broader society. Common arguments in favor include:

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Job Training and Rehabilitation

  • Work programs give inmates constructive activities and marketable skills to use when re-entering society after release. This can reduce recidivism.
  • Labor helps rehabilitate inmates through instilling discipline, work ethic, and self-worth.

Offsetting Incarceration Costs

  • Prison labor provides products and services that offset some costs of incarceration, saving taxpayer money.
  • Room and board costs are deducted from inmate’s pay rather than being fully funded by government.
  • Inmates working outside prisons on public works projects directly offset costs.

Restitution to Victims and Society

  • Work provides a way for prisoners to repay debts to victims and society for the costs of their crimes.
  • Diverting income to victim restitution funds or community service agencies allows for direct repayment.

Economic Production and Competitiveness

  • Prison labor adds to the overall GDP and economic productivity of the country.
  • Helps prisons and related businesses compete in domestic and global industries.

Proponents emphasize that work programs provide structure, training, restitution, and economic advantages that can benefit inmates, prisons, government budgets, victims, and society.

Arguments Against Prison Labor

However, many arguments exist against the current state of prison labor programs as well. Common criticisms include:

Unfair, Exploitative Compensation

  • Inmate workers typically earn well below minimum wage, sometimes as little as $0.12 to $0.40 per hour, with few labor protections.
  • Work requirements combined with paltry compensation amounts to exploitation of a captive workforce.
  • The 13th Amendment exempted prison labor from prohibition of involuntary servitude.

Impact on Outside Employment

  • Prison labor creates unfair competition with companies that pay market wages and provide full benefits. This puts downward pressure on wages and jobs.
  • While imports can be restricted based on country of origin and labor conditions, goods from domestic prison workers are indistinguishable, making competition an uneven playing field.

Dangerous Work Conditions

  • Health and safety standards within prisons often lag behind those for comparable civilian jobs.
  • Inmates lack recourse and organizations to advocate for safer conditions.

Profit Motive Corrupts Justice System

  • The economic incentives of low-cost labor can corrupt the criminal justice system. There are concerns about conflicts of interest and increased incarceration.

Critics argue the current state of inmate labor exploits captive workers, harms job markets, endangers workers, and creates perverse incentives, amounting to unjust, unethical profiteering.

Reform Efforts

In response to concerns about prison labor, various reform efforts aim to improve inmate working conditions and compensation:

Minimum Wage Requirements

  • Some states have passed laws or resolutions requiring prison workers be paid state or federal minimum wage. However, most states still pay well below $7.25/hour.
  • California’s Assembly Bill 1745 proposed paying wages matching the outside labor market. It was vetoed by the governor in 2020.
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Worker Safety Requirements

  • Illinois and other states have implemented new occupational safety requirements to improve health conditions.
  • convicts with OSHA to conduct health inspections at a federal prison in California after multiple hospitalizations.

Restorative Justice Programs

  • Pilot programs allow inmates to earn higher wages by working for nonprofit community service providers, prioritizing restitution.
  • Washington allows inmates to earn minimum wage by fighting wildfires, with deductions for restitution payments.

While most prison labor reform remains limited in scope, these efforts seek to reduce exploitation and re-frame prison work as rehabilitative.

Case Study: Angola Prison Rodeo

The labor practices at Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola Prison, provide a case study highlighting both profits and reform efforts. Angola’s iconic inmate rodeo has generated revenue for decades, but faced pressure to improve conditions.


Angola Prison opened an inmate rodeo in 1965 to entertain prisoners and the public. The bloody spectacles drew crowds eager to watch prisoners compete for small prizes. Serious injuries were common given the untrained convicts performing rodeo events involving angry bulls.


While popular and lucrative for the prison, earning over $2 million a year by the 1990s, Angola’s rodeo faced growing condemnation from activists and lawmakers. Critics considered forcing inmates to risk injury for entertainment exploitative and inhumane.


Under increasing pressure, Angola implemented reforms such as training courses for the all-volunteer ranch and rodeo hands programs. Safety standards improved and excessive bloodshed waned. Injuries declined as the rodeo focused more on skill.

Angola’s prison rodeo exemplifies both the profitability of inmate labor and the need for reforms to reduce exploitation. While still controversial, conditions have improved.

Key Takeaways on Prison Labor Revenue

  • Prison labor generates over $11 billion in goods and services annually in total sales revenue. Significant industries exist in states like California, Florida, and Texas.
  • Supporters argue there are benefits such as job training, offsetting incarceration costs, and restitution to victims and society.
  • Critics point to exploitation, unfair competition, unsafe conditions, and corrupting profit motives.
  • Reforms to increase wages, improve safety, and focus on rehabilitation seek to reduce exploitation while maintaining rehabilitative benefits.
  • The high profits from prison labor create incentives for abuse that must be balanced with worker protections and restorative justice.

Careful policy is needed to ensure prison work programs uphold ethics and human rights while providing positive outcomes for inmates, prisons, and society.

Notable Criminal Convictions and Restitution

Prison labor provides one means for inmates to repay debts to victims and society. Here are examples of major financial judgments against criminal offenders and their restitution efforts:

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DefendantConviction YearAmount Ordered in RestitutionDetails of Restitution Payment
Bernie Madoff2009$170 billionForfeited $80 billion in assets. Victim Restitution Fund collected over $14 billion. Unpaid balance will pass to estate.
Enron Executives2006$161 millionKenneth Lay estate sold assets to repay. Jeffrey Skilling sold investments, paid $42 million.
WorldCom Directors2005$36 millionEstate of Bernie Ebbers paid $14 million. Others paid from accounts and assets.
Exxon Valdez Oil Spill1991$507 millionExxon paid over $303 million restitution for 1989 spill damages and cleanup.
Ponzi Schemer Allen Stanford2012$5.9 billionStanford surrendered assets but unpaid balance will pass to estate after release.

High restitution judgments provide deterrence and punishment for financial crimes. Prison work programs allow inmates the opportunity to repay substantial court-ordered debts.

Frequently Asked Questions

What jobs do inmates perform as part of prison labor programs?

Common prison work programs have inmates performing occupations such as manufacturing, agriculture, telemarketing, customer service, packaging and fulfillment, data entry, laundry services, license plate making, and public works construction.

Do prison laborers participate voluntarily or are work assignments mandatory?

Policies vary, but most systems require able-bodied inmates to work. Prisoners can select from available jobs, with priority often given based on seniority and good behavior. Refusing to work can result in disciplinary action.

Are companies required to disclose the use of prison labor?

No federal law mandates disclosing the use of prison labor, though there have been proposals for such regulations. Some states have passed “truth in advertising” laws about this. Consumers must research company policies to confirm if prison labor is used.

Can inmates get jobs related to their crimes, like financial fraud?

Usually not. Background checks prevent assigning jobs related to inmates’ offenses. For example, white collar criminals cannot work in clerical or accounting roles due to the risks. Jobs assigned avoid providing access to any tools of an inmate’s former trade.

How are workplace injuries and illnesses handled in prison labor conditions?

Prison laborers are not covered by workers compensation insurance. Lawsuits for injuries are usually not feasible. Healthcare within the prison system treats work-related illnesses and injuries, with costs deducted from whatever minimal pay the inmate receives. Reforms seek to improve safety standards.


Incarcerated individuals, while paying debts to society, provide a significant amount of labor generating billions for correctional systems and outside companies. However, this raises serious concerns about exploitation and unfair competition. With a careful balancing of rehabilitative aims alongside ethics, regulations, and restorative justice principles, prison work programs can potentially benefit inmates, facilities, taxpayers, victims, and communities without unjust profiteering from this captive workforce.

However, reforms have been slow, allowing massive prison labor forces to continue laboring for little pay under questionable conditions. Ongoing advocacy and policy changes are still needed to reach a point where the positive outcomes outweigh the inherent risks of generating revenue from incarcerated populations.

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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