What Kind of Labor do Prisons Make Inmates Perform?

When you are sentenced to prison, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to be locked in a cell 24/7. Unless you have a super-violent history and are housed in a SuperMax, or maximum-security prison, chances are you will either be assigned to a work detail or required to attend classes. 

When you are assigned to a work detail, the type of job you get and the kind of work you perform will depend on the facility you are housed in, your security level, and the opportunities available. So let’s answer today’s question: what kind of labor do prisons make inmates perform?

In this blog post, I will cover the following topics:

  • There are three types of prison labor
  • What kind of job assignments are “in house labor?”
  • Where do inmates work when they are on “work release?”
  • Some inmates work for prison industries
  • Do prisons still use chain gangs?
  • Should prison labor be abolished?

There are three types of prison labor

In 21st century America, there are three main kinds of prison labor: in-house work, work release programs, and prison industries. Inmates who are assigned to in-house work perform a job inside prison walls. 

Those who are assigned to work release programs are allowed to leave the facility during the work day, usually under supervision. Finally, those who work for prison industries produce goods and provide services for profit.

What kind of job assignments are ‘in house labor’?

A prison is essentially a small community that uses inmate labor to keep the facility running. In-house job assignments include food service, laundry, building maintenance, landscaping, janitorial service, and electrical service.

Inmates with a high school diploma can work as a tutor or assistant in the education program, at the chapel, or in the recreation area. 

Facilities with an operating farm, garden, or power plant will also have inmate job opportunities. Anything that is being operated inside of prison walls usually has at least one inmate job detail that comes with it. 

The pay rate that comes with these jobs does vary by state and facility. But as a rule, inmates are usually paid pennies per hour. An average full-time job at the prison I was incarcerated in paid $15 per month.

Where do inmates work when they are on ‘work release’?

Inmates who are part of the work release program are assigned to jobs outside of the prison. In the facility where I was incarcerated, the work release opportunities included the Department of Transportation (picking up trash on the side of the road) and a local nursing home (CNA). 

The work release opportunities depend on the facility. They are often at government agencies — federal, state, and local. Sometimes, inmates are allowed to work at a local business or volunteer at a local charity.

Inmates on work release usually earn minimum wage (at least), but are required to use that money to pay court fees, restitution, and room/board. Any money that an inmate saves from working a job in the work release program can be taken home when they are released.

Some inmates work for prison industries

The topic of prison industries jobs can get pretty controversial. Prison Industries are usually private companies that contract with a prison to have inmates make products or provide services that earn a profit. 

This is a multi-billion-dollar industry with incarcerated people doing everything from building office furniture and making military equipment to staffing call centers and doing 3D modeling.

According to Corporate Accountability Lab, “Over 4,100 corporations profit from mass incarceration in the United States. These corporations include private prisons, which hold valuable government contracts, featuring minimum bed guarantees and a fixed price per-prisoner, private companies that stock overpriced commissaries and provide telephone services, and private companies using prison labor in their supply chains.”

The Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP) is a federal program that allows incarcerated people at qualifying state and local facilities to work a selection of jobs in society, such as factory work assembling and packaging products. 

Even though these jobs are provided by private-for-profit companies (who split their revenues with the prison), it doesn’t mean the inmates are paid minimum wage. Sometimes, they only make a dollar or two a day. These fall on the higher-paying end of prison jobs, with average hourly wages between $0.33 and $1.41 in 2017, as reported by the Prison Policy Initiative

Even if an inmate makes $50 or $100 per month at their full-time job, their wages are eaten up by taxes, expensive phone calls, and high-priced commissary items.

It is hard to know exactly how big the prison labor industry is because economic data is hard to find. There hasn’t been a full nationwide census of prisons since 2005. Back then, it was estimated that there were nearly 1.5 million incarcerated people working, and that included 600,000 people in the manufacturing sector. 

Do prisons still use chain gangs?

A chain gang is a group of prisoners who are chained together to perform physically challenging work as a form of punishment during a prison sentence. The work could include everything from repairing buildings to fixing roads to clearing land.

Chain gangs were often used in prison labor in the 19th and early 20th century but were generally discontinued in the 1950s. In the past 25 years, though, they have been reintroduced in a handful of facilities in the South. However, they are often met with criticism, and sometimes with lawsuits.

Chain gangs are extremely rare these days because the practice is often viewed as “commercial slavery.”

Should prison labor be abolished?

When the 13th Amendment of the Constitution was passed after the Civil War, it included a loophole that allowed prisons to pay people below minimum wage. Abolitionists argue that this creates a version of modern-day slavery. 

Section 1 of the 13th Amendment says that, “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” 

In other words, although slavery is prohibited, it can legally be used as punishment for incarcerated people. If inmates were paid a proper wage — and didn’t have all of their money taken for room/board and fees — it would help them to get established on their own when they are released.

Do you think prison labor should be abolished? Let us know in the comments below.


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