Penal labor in the U.S. is explicitly allowed by the 13th Amendment of our Constitution. The amendment outlaws slavery or involuntary servitude in the U.S., except when serving as punishment for a crime where the person has been “duly convicted”. In the most generous light, you could see this as a way to provide training and work to inmates, but in reality, it's often used in the U.S. to close budget gaps with cheap labor and to offset the cost of running a prison..
Generally, wages that inmates can earn are extremely low. Inmates earn just pennies on the dollar of what someone outside the prison could earn for equivalent work, and sometimes they aren't paid at all. Jobs range widely from prison kitchen duty to manufacturing or even firefighting.
Average Wages for Inmates
It’s difficult to find recent statistics for prison wages in each each state, in part because there is no central place where that data is collected and kept. Each prison system and state legislature determines how prison labor is regulated and paid.
Typically, wages range from 14 cents to $2.00/hour for prison maintenance labor, depending on the state where the inmate is incarcerated. The national average hovers around 63 cents per hour for this type of labor. In some states, prisoners work for free.1
Minnesota and New Jersey Pay $2 per Hour for Prison Maintenance Jobs
For prison maintenance jobs, inmates can earn $2 per hour in Minnesota and New Jersey, which is very high compared with other states. Inmates who produce manufactured goods often earn higher wages than other prison jobs, reaching upwards of $1.41 per hour depending on the location. Often times these goods are later sold to government agencies or nonprofits.1
Eight States Pay Nothing to Inmates
Unfortunately, government-run facilities in some states don’t pay their inmates at all for their prison labor. Those states include Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas.1 Despite not being paid for their labor, inmates may still want to work because it could help their chances of being released on parole.
Wages Can Be Taken Away
Even when inmates can work higher-paying jobs, part of their wages can be taken by the prison to pay for their room and board, court costs or other fees. In Massachusetts, half of an inmate’s wages go to pay for expenses after release, and in New Mexico, 15-50% goes to a Crime Victims Reparations Fund, discharge money and family support.3
Expenses Further Reduce Inmate Pay
Wages for inmates are even lower when you consider the number of fees charged and the cost of necessary items sold to people in prison. A female inmate in Colorado has to spend two weeks of wages just to buy one box of tampons; a Pennsylvania inmate will need to spend almost two weeks of wages on a $10 phone card.3
Types of Jobs Inmates Have
Inmates can work many types of jobs. They might fall into one of several categories: regular prison maintenance jobs, jobs for state-owned businesses, jobs outside the facility and jobs for private businesses. Some of these jobs can be extremely dangerous.
Prison Maintenance Jobs
Jobs that inmates perform to maintain the prison are the most common and also the lowest paying jobs. These jobs might include cooking food, washing laundry or custodial work. Many people will argue that this type of labor is necessary to keep the prison running without spending more taxpayer dollars.
State-Owned Business Jobs
Every state in the U.S. (outside of Alaska) has a correctional agency that functions as a business—inside prisons. These correctional agencies operate “shops” that employ inmates and sell goods and services exclusively to government agencies.3 For example, public universities in Virginia are required to buy their furniture from Virginia’s prison-labor company.4
Outside the Facility Jobs
Some inmates can work outside the prison as part of a work-release program, work camp or community work center. In Nebraska, for instance, inmates clean the governor’s mansion.2
Private Business Jobs
Sometimes businesses may contract with the prison to operate inside the prison walls and employ inmates. These companies pay much higher wages, but unfortunately, inmates might see only a tiny portion of their wages. The bulk of it is typically taken by the prison to pay for fees.3
Inmates often suffer from unsafe working conditions. Some of the higher-paying jobs are, by their very nature, extremely dangerous, like firefighting. In Arizona, professional firefighters make more than $22 per hour while inmate firefighters are paid $1.50 per hour to fight wildfires and only 50 cents an hour for other firefighting work.5 They are not paid for breaks.
Make a Difference for People in Prisons
Prison wages vary widely across the country. How inmates earn money and how much they get to keep can also vary dramatically. But at the end of the day, people in prisons are still people. If you would like to help bring about solutions and positive change to the criminal justice system, consider how an MA in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Kent State University can help.
Kent State is ranked in the top-tier list of Best National Universities by U.S. News & World Report, and our Criminology and Criminal Justice program is focused on bringing about systemic improvements to the criminal justice system, from policies and procedures to victim rights and beyond.
- Retrieved on 20, May, 2021, from newsweek.com/prison-slavery-who-benefits-cheap-inmate-labor-1093729
- Retrieved on 20, May, 2021, from npr.org/transcripts/884989263
- Retrieved on 20, May, 2021, from prisonpolicy.org/blog/2017/04/10/wages/
- Retrieved on 20, May, 2021, from insidehighered.com/news/2020/02/14/public-universities-several-states-are-required-buy-prison-industries
- Retrieved on 20, May, 2021, from prisonlegalnews.org/news/2021/feb/1/arizona-pays-prisoners-pennies-dollar-fight-fires-all-name-saving-money/