Prison Labor: Pros & Cons

Instructor: Melanie Norwood

Melanie has taught several criminal justice courses, holds an MS in Sociology concentrating in Criminal Justice & is completing her Ph.D. in Criminology, Law & Justice.

In this lesson we will discuss how prison labor is used within institutional operations, the types of jobs inmates might work, the salary ranges of inmates, how work is used to rehabilitate inmates, and the general pros and cons concerning the use of inmate labor.

Prison labor refers to the work performed by prison inmates. It can be described as falling into two general categories: the labor provided by inmates to maintain and operate the prison, and labor provided by inmates to a contracted entity often to harvest or manufacture goods for profit or to offset some other expenses. When there are challenges regarding the use of prison labor or discussions regarding the use of prison labor arise, these challenges generally refer to the latter of these types.

Inmate Labor Used to Maintain Prisons

In order to maintain the prison, inmates may have janitorial duties within the prison, cooking meals, doing laundry, working in the commissary (where offenders may purchase additional food, clothing or toiletries while in prison), maintaining the prison yard by landscaping and so forth. Some inmates that have special skills might be placed in a position to supervise others, such as being a certified and licensed electrician or plumber, having higher than average education in which he could tutor fellow inmates or help offer basic education courses. Having inmates perform these duties ensures that costs of operating the prison are kept to a minimum and reduces the risks of bringing in outside personnel to perform these tasks.

Goods Made and Harvested on Prison Grounds

In the case of prisons situated in geographic locations where land is plentiful and easily harvested, farming using prison labor might be economically prudent, especially if it produces crops that could feed the inmate population. In contrast, in areas where land might not be as plentiful and/or the climate or soil conditions are less conducive to farming, manufacturing or recycling might be alternate options for use of prison labor and space. When inmate labor is used to create goods for use within prison, this serves to reduce the costs of running the prison, which reduces public spending on prisons. This is generally favorably received by the public that often scrutinizes and challenges state expenditures on prisons. Examples of this might be making soaps and cleaners to be used within the prison and other prisons around the state (such as the case in Illinois's Stateville Correctional Center); making clothing, coffins, and mattresses to be used within the prison itself (this was once the case in Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola), or more controversially, making goods to be sold outside the prison, such as clothing for Victoria's Secret or J.C. Penney.

Factory workers

Prison labor

Inmate Pay Scales and Job Competition Within the Prison

Typically, inmates working within a prison earn very little money. The pay scale for inmates varies drastically amongst state and federal prisons, in addition to the time an inmate has been working in a given position, and the position an inmate works within the prison. Salary ranges are far below minimum wage in the free world because minimum wage laws do not apply to prisoners. Thus a prisoner often makes a few cents per hour ranging up to a few dollars per hour. For example, a new inmate at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola will be first sent to work in the fields farming for a mere two cents per hour for the first several months of his sentence until he is eligible to work in another position within the prison. In Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois, some of the most coveted positions for inmates are working in the production of soaps and cleaners used in all Illinois state prisons and state-run offices. These positions pay a handsome few dollars per hour. As cash is a prohibited item in prisons, all earned money goes into an inmate's commissary account. Consequently, good behavior is key to a better job assignment--and more money in an inmate's commissary account.

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