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US depends on prison labor, but is slow to mandate fair conditions

Companies across the U.S. are dependent on prison labor to make their products, but the workers face unfair pay without much room to argue.
Posted at 8:32 PM, Feb 15, 2023

From uniforms to bed sheets to state flags, U.S. prisons have a long history of profiting from prison labor. 

The Bureau of Prisons, which houses federal inmates, sells products through its company Unicor. Unicor brought in $528 million in 2021 alone.

Similarly, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice sells products through Texas Correctional Industries. TCI brought in roughly $82 million between Sept. 2016 and Jan. 2018.

The products made by companies like these are mostly sold to government entities like the military or public schools. Correction officials say the training inmates receive will benefit them when they are released.

Unicor specifically says its employees fare 14% better at securing employment than those who don't participate in the program.

But wages are very low, and some states don't pay their workers at all.

"I think it's extremely troubling that the state is making money on the backs of people who are incarcerated," said Michele Deitch, executive director of the University of Texas' Prison and Jail Innovation Lab. "And that's true, whether it is a profit making enterprise or even just to operate the prisons on a daily basis."

A study by the University of Chicago found 65% of inmates (roughly 800,000 people) report working behind bars, and more than 75% of inmates surveyed said they have been punished for refusing to work.

Sam Nathaniel Brown spent 24 years in prison before being released on parole, but Brown's last job behind bars forced him to the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic

Inmates are pushing back against working in US prisons

Inmates are pushing back against working in US prisons

Inmates are required to work in a number of prisons in the U.S., but many are pushing back and demanding better conditions.


"Before I came out, the last job that I had was a health care facility maintenance worker," Brown said. "I was one of the first people in the state in a carceral setting to have to disinfect and clean a cell and an office where a staff member and then a prisoner tested positive for COVID-19... so I was terrified for my life."

Brown says when he refused to work, he was threatened with a disciplinary measure that would have made him ineligible for parole for an additional eight years.

Along with menial jobs, inmates can also have extremely dangerous jobs, like fighting California wildfires.

Jamie Lowe wrote a book chronicling the stories of female inmate firefighters.

"They're on the ground, building the lines around containing the fires, and so they are ripping through the roots, and they're doing really hard labor," Lowe said. "That also involves being really close to live flames, and that's terrifying."

Lowe says the state has come to depend on these incarcerated workers, saying they make up a third of wildland firefighters.

And while they have some benefits, like working toward an earlier release and much more relaxed security, they are paid just $5 a day for their work.

"They're out there for fire protection," Lowe said. "They're out there for flooding. They're sandbagging communities. They're doing hard labor in every extreme seasonal catastrophe. People should be outraged."

In recent years, there has been some major reforms around prison labor.

In California, the governor signed a bill to help the formerly incarcerated secure jobs as firefighters after their release by making it easier to erase their criminal record.

This past November, four states voted to prohibit slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime. The change, in theory, will stop the practice of coercing prisoners to work under threat of punishment. Those four states join Colorado, Nebraska and Utah, which already removed the language from their state constitutions.

Employers look beyond criminal records to make up for labor shortage

Employers look beyond criminal records to make up for labor shortage

For people who served prison time, the unemployment rate is 60% from the time of their release until four years later.