Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time. Simple as it may sound, there are currently 1.6 million Americans serving time in prison. More than half, roughly 870,000 inmates, maintain full-time jobs. A recent article titled Modern-Day Slavery in America’s Prison Workforce by Beth Schwartzapfel investigates the inferior labor opportunities offered to incarcerated individuals and the impact this discrimination has on prisoners’ lives, their families’ lives, and the US penitentiary system. By breaking the law, inmates have forfeited some of their rights, but to what extent?
While wages vary across institutions and by job, state and federal prisons pay an average of 20 and 31 cents per hour, respectively. Cents. That means less than $2 or $3 for a full day’s work. Last time I checked, the minimum wage was $7.25 hourly. But “because inmate workers are not considered ‘employees’ under the law, they have none of the protections that the word implies.” Regardless of the routine nature of their jobs – usually tasks like mopping and cleaning, food prep and service, filing papers, landscaping, or laundering uniforms and sheets – as well as the low compensation, most prisoners want to work simply because it gives them something to do, something to distract them from the bleakness of life behind bars.
More than 2.7 million Americans currently have a mother or father in prison, about 1.7 of which are under the age of 18. Without the financial support of a parent, families are struggling to make ends meet, meaning they cannot send funds to their incarcerated relatives. Without credit in their commissary account, inmates are forced to work prison jobs. In turn, these jobs leave prisoners with little to no money to support their families on the outside. Notice a pattern?
When prisoners are released, they often have less than a few hundred dollars to live on and thousands of dollars of debt owed to the government. To add to their problems, employers are very disinclined to hire criminals, making it difficult for previous offenders to find decent work. In many cases, this leads to poverty-stricken families, homelessness, illegal money-making activities, and repeat arrests. Notice another pattern?
Raising the wages in prisons would be the most obvious solution to end the cycle. However, state and federal penitentiaries have such high operating costs that this is an unrealistic option for most institutions. What can be done? Should prisoners have equal labor rights?