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COMMENTARY | To understand how best to reform and improve prison jobs and better meet the needs of people in prison, decision-makers can build on the existing evidence and listen to those who are incarcerated.
This story was first published by the Urban Institute. Click here to read the original version.
Research on prison jobs often highlights the poor working conditions and negligible, if any, wages incarcerated workers experience and earn, but it rarely includes workers’ perspectives. As indicated by a nationwide prison strike in 2018, many incarcerated people believe prison labor is exploitative, but the limited evidence that includes their voices suggests many prefer to engage in paid work than not being allowed to work at all.
Evidence shows prison labor is overdue for reform, and important first steps include eliminating forced, unpaid work; improving working conditions; and increasing pay. But those directly affected say removing the option of employment for incarcerated people is not the solution. When protests against companies using prison labor are successful and jobs are eliminated, people in prison face the collateral consequences of reduced income.
To understand how best to reform and improve prison jobs and better meet the needs of people in prison, decision-makers can build on the existing evidence and listen to those who are incarcerated.
Why Prison Jobs Matter
Although the wages are meager, prison jobs are a crucial source of income for many people. Most prisons provide some basic necessities to indigent people, but those provisions often do not include hygiene items, such as toilet paper, dental floss, deodorant, and feminine products. But the bar to qualify for indigence is often very high, and most who are incarcerated must purchase these items, including soap, via the commissary.
For incarcerated people without family who can support them financially, the only sanctioned solution to obtaining these goods is through employment.
Jobs for those incarcerated currently fall into four categories:
- facility operation and maintenance (e.g., general janitorial duties, cooking, laundry, grounds maintenance, and repair)
- state-owned correctional industries producing goods and services that are sold to other government agencies
- public works that operate mostly off prison grounds (e.g., grounds crews and firefighters)
- private companies
The hourly wage for non-industry jobs averages between $0.13 and $0.52, and the hourly wage for correctional industry jobs ranges from $0.30 to $1.30. A private company in Kansas pays its incarcerated workers $14.00 an hour, but the take-home pay is less than half after prison deductions; prisons can deduct up to 80 percent of these paychecks for room and board, fines, and other fees.
An unintended consequence of advocates’ well-intentioned efforts to push companies to cut ties with prison industries is the elimination of what little income people in prison have to meet their basic needs.
Prison jobs also offer non-financial benefits. In one study, people incarcerated in Pennsylvania who work for state-owned correctional industries reported increased self-confidence, better perception of self, and enhanced interpersonal skills. Respondents built relationships with staff and had the ability to take pride in their work. They also reported that the routine, social benefits, and opportunity to develop a strong work ethic were the most meaningful benefits to them over time.
Other research has found that those working in prison industry jobs are less likely than others to incur misconduct infractions. And though incarcerated men and women reported the structure and responsibility of employment helped them focus on more prosocial activities, incarcerated men especially reported feelings of productivity and independence as a result of their job.
Some research also finds a parallel between the benefits of quality employment while incarcerated and the benefits of quality employment on the outside. And some studies demonstrate tentative post-release benefits (PDF) of prison employment and suggest a positive effect on desistance, though other research does not indicate a significant effect.
How Can Decision-makers Better Support Incarcerated Workers?
- Corrections leaders and decision-makers could increase opportunities for paid prison jobs, ensure working conditions are safe and accessible, and increase payment to acknowledge the benefits of this work.
As correctional staff battle severe staffing shortages, one way to alleviate some of this burden on staff is to train and pay incarcerated people for duties correctional officers or other staff would otherwise do, such as leading programs for fellow incarcerated people and recording information in daily activity logs.
And as the political realities of corrections budgeting make it challenging for legislators to support state funding that would compensate incarcerated people at the minimum wage, departments of corrections could consider developmental partnerships with for-profit firms to create and ensure employment opportunities are included in basic workplace protections.
- Corrections officials must grapple with the racial inequality that has been part of prison labor throughout history.
Early “convict leasing” programs continued the slavery of the antebellum South, and even today, evidence indicates white people in prison are allocated more desirable jobs than their Black counterparts. Prison jobs should be subject to the same anti-discrimination regulations as jobs in the community.
- Lawmakers interested in protecting all people from forced labor can consider several options for protecting those in prison, such as amending the loophole in the 13th amendment which allows for the involuntary servitude of those in confinement as a result of a criminal conviction.
Similarly, prison officials and lawmakers could eliminate state and federal laws and policies that require forced labor or that penalize incarcerated people for not working. Colorado, Nebraska, and Utah have already amended their state constitutions to close the “slavery loophole” in recent years.
- Researchers, corrections decision-makers, policymakers, and advocates should engage directly with people who are incarcerated to identify reform strategies that best support those directly affected.
- Lawmakers who want to enhance quality of life for those in prison and increase the likelihood of desistance should ensure incarcerated people are compensated at the minimum wage and have safe, humane working conditions.
Incarcerated people are affected by inflation too; their wages are rarely adjusted for inflation despite rising commissary prices. To combat this, lawmakers could consider enacting periodic wage adjustments for inflation for jobs inside prisons.
Plus, returning citizens’ financial stability can have a positive effect on public safety. Research indicates that when people have savings upon release, recidivism rates are lower.
Nationwide, incarcerated workers make between $0.13 and $0.24 per hour on average, with some states reporting no payment at all. With a guaranteed minimum wage, incarcerated people would be better equipped to afford necessities, send money to loved ones, pay restitution and court fees, and prepare for release.
Alice Galley is a policy assistant in the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute.
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