For more than 150 years, the U.S. Constitution has relegated prisoners to a distinct underclass that allows us to be exploited for our cheap, and in many cases unpaid, labor. Although the 13th Amendment was intended to protect citizens from being abused through slavery, it included a carveout stating that this right to protection did not apply to those convicted of crimes. Inside the towering walls and razor wire fences of U.S. prisons, slavery remains legal—and it is carried out with little oversight, often under horrific conditions.
As a society, we’re constantly told that people behind bars belong there and that they owe us a debt. It’s true that those of us who are incarcerated have a responsibility to do everything in our power to repair the harm we’ve caused. But forcing us to submit to exploitation and abuse for the benefit of corporations does not help victims of crime or make society safer.
A 2022 ACLU and Global Human Rights Clinic report found that people incarcerated in state and federal prisons produce approximately $11 billion in goods and services for the U.S. economy while being paid pennies for their labor. Often, this leaves prisoners unable to afford basic hygiene items or even phone calls or stationery to help us remain in contact with the outside world.
Unlike workers in the outside world, incarcerated workers “are under the complete control of their employers … stripped of even the most minimal protections against labor exploitation and abuse,” the report concluded.
Incarcerated workers in every state earn far less than minimum wage. The average minimum hourly wage for prisoners in non-industry jobs across the U.S. is 13 cents an hour, the ACLU and GHRC found. The average maximum hourly wage is 52 cents an hour. In seven states, incarcerated workers receive no compensation for most work assignments. Industry jobs, in which prisoners produce goods and services for private companies, pay only slightly better, but still ensure that the employer nets a huge profit.
Some states allow for the garnishing of these meager prison wages to pay for child support, court fees, restitution, institutional debt—incurred when prisoners cannot afford hygiene items or medical copays—and even room and board costs.
And while our wages are just a fraction of even the lowest-paying jobs on the outside, we are forced to pay highly inflated prices for basic necessities. At the prison in Washington State where I am incarcerated, many jobs pay only 42 cents an hour. A local 20-minute phone call costs $1.43, meaning a prisoner must work 3.5 hours to cover the cost of that call. A 3-ounce bag of freeze-dried coffee is $3.34, or 8 hours of work. A tube of Colgate Sensitive toothpaste is $6.10—more than 14.5 hours of work. The list goes on.