Prisoners making license plates is a popular stereotype, but most of the nation’s 800,000 incarcerated workers hold jobs more similar to those on the outside: They cook and serve food, mop floors, mow lawns and cut hair.
Unlike other workers, though, the incarcerated have little say, if any, in what jobs they do. They face punishment if they refuse to work and are paid pennies per hour — if that.
The nation’s racial reckoning of the past few years has prompted a reevaluation of penal labor as a legacy of slavery, spurring people to question whether incarcerated people should be required to work in 2022. Activists are pressing for an end to work requirements or, if they continue, for higher wages.
Among the proponents of fully voluntary work in prison are the American Civil Liberties Union and the Global Human Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago’s School of Law. The groups released a report in June calling, among other recommendations, for the elimination of any laws and policies that punish incarcerated people who are unwilling to work.
Other groups and lawmakers insist it’s appropriate to require prisoners to work to maintain prison facilities.
“We still have to run our prisons,” California state Sen. Steve Glazer, a Democrat, said in an interview. “We need hygiene, kitchen service and groundskeeping to keep our prisons going. Those are all appropriate work elements to being in prison.”
Glazer favors different legislative solutions to inequities in the criminal justice system. The California Senate recently asked the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for a plan to raise inmate pay.
“That is exactly the way we should be approaching this issue,” Glazer said.
Other states also are considering whether and how to improve prison work and pay.
In March, Colorado enacted a law that will pay the state minimum wage of $12.56 an hour to inmates who are within a year of their release date and work for private companies through the state-run Take TWO (for Transitional Work Opportunity) program.
“This is actually a very conservative approach,” Colorado state Rep. Matt Soper, the Republican sponsor of the bipartisan measure, said in an interview. “We need workers, and they need to gain skills before release.”
To pass the bill, though, Soper first had to explain why paying prisoners the minimum wage was a good idea.
“Some victims and victims’ advocacy groups opposed the idea at first, and then they wanted every dollar to come back in restitution,” he said. “But that’s not a good system, because we want [the former offenders] to have savings as seed money to restart their lives. My goal is to disrupt the current model of recidivism.”
But no Colorado inmates are participating right now. Take TWO, which began in 2019 and reportedly had about 100 participants in March, is “on a pause while we review and update logistics and criteria and address some of our immediate staffing shortages,” the Colorado Department of Corrections said in an email.
Prison minimum wage bills are pending in New York and Illinois. Since 2019, bills have failed in Arizona, Maryland, Mississippi, Nevada, Texas and Virginia, according to the ACLU.
Former inmate Samual Nathaniel Brown seeks more sweeping change. When COVID-19 struck, Brown had served more than 20 years of a life sentence in California state prisons for attempted murder and had a parole hearing coming up.
A janitor in a health care facility at the prison in Los Angeles County known as Lancaster, he was ordered to clean rooms that had blood, feces and other bodily fluids on the floors and walls.
“I was terrified for my life. I didn’t want to die this close to going home,” Brown, who suffers from asthma and has had a collapsed lung, said in an interview.
He was told if he did not work, he would be written up with a 115 disciplinary report, which Brown calls “the modern-day equivalent of the whip on your back.” A 115 signifies a serious violation of prison rules and can result in loss of “good time” credits for good conduct, delaying an inmate’s release date. Brown went to work despite, he said, a lack of social distancing and inadequate personal protective equipment.
Then, encouraged by his wife, he wrote a proposed amendment to the state constitution prohibiting involuntary servitude. Brown earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from California State University, Los Angeles while he was in prison. He was granted parole last December.
Brown’s amendment, introduced by California state Sen. Sydney Kamlager, failed in the legislature in June after the state Department of Finance estimated it would cost $1.5 billion in 2022 to pay the state’s $15 minimum wage to the 65,000 incarcerated Californians.
A similar push in Illinois also has stalled.
“Yes, it’s expensive,” Illinois state Sen. Robert Peters, a Democrat who twice has introduced a prison minimum wage bill in his state, told Stateline. “But we always find the money to build other things. Why are we not able to find the money for this? The challenge is: Why are there so many people in prison doing work that you can’t afford to pay them?”
State prisoners in Illinois did receive a pay increase last year — their first in 11 years. It was about 14 cents a day, on wages that average 85 cents to $2.50 a day. Peters wants the state to pay prisoners the state minimum wage of $12 an hour.
“There’s a disproportionate impact on Black and Hispanic people. It hits at class and race and gender,” he said.
A study last year by The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that works on criminal justice issues, found that Black people are incarcerated in state prisons at nearly five times the rate of White people, and Hispanic people are incarcerated at a rate 1.3 times than White people.
But even though Illinois has a Democratic governor and Democrats control both chambers of the legislature, Peters’ bill, the End Prison Slavery Act, has gone nowhere.
“It’s very complicated,” Peters said. “We do have some legislators who want to do it, but they think the electorate is against it.”
Three Republican Illinois state legislators who are typically involved in criminal justice matters did not respond to requests for comment on the prison minimum wage bill.
Peters argues that incarcerated workers deserve wages sufficient to purchase essentials at the prison commissary, the only market to which they have access. He is also looking for ways to reduce commissary prices.
Proponents of making prison work more remunerative and meaningful also argue it’s not productive for society to keep incarcerated workers in dead-end jobs that fail to prepare them for employment outside the prison walls or allow them to accumulate some savings for when they are released. Studies show poverty and unemployment lead to recidivism.
Some crime victims groups also support raising prison wages, said Lenore Anderson, founder and president of the Alliance for Safety and Justice, an Oakland, California-based group that works to end mass incarceration, reduce crime and support survivors of violent crime.
The public assumes that people hurt by crime and violence would want the worst possible prison experience for those who committed the crimes, Anderson said.
“But that’s not what we find. People want them to succeed,” she said. “How do we know after someone has served time they’re prepared for living in society? That’s what rehabilitation, work and education programs do. Wages are part of that. It would be very consistent with smart rehabilitation to align prison wages with wages on the outside.”
The average wage nationwide for incarcerated workers who maintain prison facilities ranges from 13 cents to 52 cents an hour, according to the ACLU and Global Human Rights Clinic. In seven Southern states — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas — almost all work by prisoners goes unpaid.
“It’s not hard to imagine that’s a vestige of slavery,” said Jennifer Turner, the ACLU’s principal human rights researcher and primary author of the report, “Captive Labor: Exploitation of Incarcerated Workers.”
An inmate survey by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, cited in “Captive Labor,” found 80% of state and federal prison workers have jobs that maintain the prison facilities. Only about 6.5% work in “correctional industries,” state-run programs that provide goods for state and local agencies, and less than 1% in private company work programs.
Cheap prison labor is profitable for states. The value of goods and services produced by correctional industries programs totaled $2 billion in 2021, according to the “Captive Labor” report, citing the National Correctional Industries Association. The value of labor to maintain prisons is unknown, although it was estimated in 2004 at $9 billion, according to the report.
New York Democratic state Sen. Zellnor Myrie introduced a bill last year that would increase prison wages to $3 an hour.
“In the depths of the pandemic, incarcerated New Yorkers, making 16 cents an hour, produced 11 million bottles of hand sanitizer for the rest of us while COVID raged inside our prisons and jails, killing dozens and sickening thousands,” Myrie said in an email. “We shouldn’t need a once-in-a-century virus to awaken us to the moral indignity of paying slave wages to those doing essential work.”
Myrie’s wage bill though, was eclipsed by other legislative efforts to change the criminal justice system in New York.
Advocates of prison changes put energy into mobilizing against a proposal floated by New York Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul in February to bring back contract labor to New York state prisons, after it had been banned for 100 years. Hochul’s proposal went nowhere, leaving the state’s incarcerated labor situation unchanged.
Worth Rises, a group based in New York City that works to end exploitation of incarcerated people and their loved ones, also found more enthusiasm to push the U.S. Congress to repeal the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which allows slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for crime, and for making phone calls for incarcerated people in state prisons free.
“We had to go with what resonates with the public — and it wasn’t the minimum wage” for incarcerated workers, said Bianca Tylek, founder and executive director of Worth Rises.