The United States’ Prison Labor System

What Is Prison Labor?

On January 31st, 1865, the 13th Amendment essentially outlawing slavery was passed into law. However, the wording wasn’t simply an abolition of slavery. Instead, the 13th Amendment states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” It’s the line, “except as punishment” which leaves a loophole for politicians to exploit the use of slavery. 

In American society, people often disregard prisoners’ rights, including forced labor or prison labor. Prisoners’ conditions are often considered justified because they’ve been deemed “criminal,” which Heiner explains is a highly subjective term. 

Subjectivity within the law allows room for prejudice and biased interpretation. So, it’s important to note that in the early years of the United States, when slavery was legal, many individuals worked day and night to “justify” the enslavement of Black people. So, if you believe that forced labor is “justified” because they’re criminals, it’s essential to acknowledge that justification is relative.


How Much Do They Make?

Prisoners subjected to prison labor, according to Holsten, make “$0.60 a day for arduous work that entails harvesting a number of crops.” Such pay is illegal in non-incarcerated populations and would obviously not be enough for anyone to live off. Thus, the issue with prison labor is why is it legal for prisoners to make such rates?

I must acknowledge that according to Holston and Crosson, prison labor is often considered a privilege by many individuals, sometimes including prisoners. Crosson explains that he looked forward to getting to do productive things to pass the time as a prisoner. And that accomplishing new tasks was rewarding in its way. 

While that maybe it’s not that prisoners are working that makes it dangerously close to slave labor. It’s that prisons pay the prisoners close to nothing. No one expects one to live off of or save off a $0.60 wage. Instead, it seems more like the prisons pay the money solely to say they pay the prisoners. 

In addition to the disgracefully low wages, Morgan, in an interview with NPR, explains that he “had to work.” And that “you don’t get days off. You don’t get to have sick days. And if I didn’t go to work, it was a rule violation.”

With such conditions, it sounds less like a typical workforce and, more accurately, like forced labor— i.e., slavery. It is not the compensation alone that separates slavery from. While government organizations, private prisons, and corporations argue that prison labor is different because inmates are paid an ever-so-slight amount of money, it is the issue of force that matters. In prison, there are no negotiations, no middle ground, and no livable wages. This force connects slavery and forced labor. Neither the slave nor the prisoner has a say in their circumstance. The slave either worked and lived or quit and died.



The American Cycle: Poverty and Prison

With an increasing cost of living and relatively stagnant minimum wage, matched with ever-fluctuating employment rates, poverty seems to be a never-ending cycle. Children who grow up in poverty are more likely to experience poverty as adults themselves. Whether this is due to the lack of educational resources, opportunities, or lack of guidance, the statistics speak for themselves. However, poverty in adulthood is not the only issue that impoverished children face growing up. Imprisonment rates in adulthood are also higher for children who grow up in poverty. And to complete the destructive cycle, previously incarcerated individuals are likely to earn zero income after releasement, therefore not being able to contribute to their household’s income. Thus, the cycle repeats for the children of these individuals, creating the American Cycle: Poverty and Prison.


Impoverished Children Facing Poverty In Adulthood

According to UNICEF, poverty affects children disproportionately. Nearly a billion children lack access to education, housing, nutrition, sanitation, or water, hundreds of millions living on less than $1.90 a day, and death rates twice that of their wealthier counterparts.

As is evident, children are much more vulnerable to the impacts of poverty. Therefore, it makes sense that studies show how children raised in poverty are more than likely to live their adulthood in poverty.

According to the Nation Center for Children in Poverty, out of the individuals who report living in poverty for 51%-100% (8-14 years) of their childhood lives, 40%-50% also report living in poverty from 20 years old to 35 years old.

The issue of intergenerational poverty becomes worse when you take a closer look. Upon further studies, the National Center for Children in Poverty finds that 24.8% of African American children are likely to live in poverty for 76%-100% of their childhoods compare to only 3.0% of whites.

Additionally, 71.7% of white people are likely to “never lived in poverty” compared to 29.6% of Black people.

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Impoverished Individuals Face Higher Rates Of Imprisonment

Children learn from the people who raise them and whom they look up to. This applies to all the good and bad qualities of adults. And inevitably, children who experience a parent or guardian going through incarceration have a higher chance of experiencing imprisonment themselves.

It is widely known that poverty levels increase with the level of one’s education level. However, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Institute for Research on Poverty connects how individuals with lower education–and therefore high poverty rates– are more likely to be incarcerated at some point in their lifetimes.

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Re-entry Into Society 

When incarcerated individuals are released back into society, it is expected that they become “productive” members of society. However, that’s a big ask when you imagine the difficulty previously incarcerated individuals face finding work opportunities.

According to the Brookings Institute, their studies report that 51% of incarcerated individuals previously earned zero income in the 2 years before incarceration. And 44.5% report zero income during the first full year after incarceration. And only 55% of the total released individuals reported any income at all.

This shows two important things: as stated in the sections above, impoverished people are more likely than their wealthier counterparts to be incarcerated at some point in their lives. And after they are released from prison, many individuals don’t leave the poverty they endured beforehand.


The Cycle Repeats

As explained, impoverished individuals are more likely to go to prison than their wealthier counterparts. They are also more likely to leave prison with little to no income within the first year.

This means that individuals are likely to leave prison, go home to their impoverished families and raise their kids in poverty. And as was explained earlier, children who grow up in poverty and experience a parent or guardian’s incarceration are more likely to live in poverty and experience incarceration as adults.

Therefore, the American cycle of prison and poverty keeps individuals–disproportionately minority communities– cycling through the seemingly perpetual circle.


Released From Prison ­≠ Freedom

No one grows up wanting to spend their lives in a prison cell. Nevertheless, the United States prison system holds 2.3 million people within its walls, accounting for 25 percent of the world’s entire incarcerated population. Approximately 5.85 Americans are barred from voting due to criminal records. Millions of previously incarcerated individuals experience homelessness and poverty because they cannot find work. 

Which Rights Are Lost? 

When prisoners are released from prison, they are supposedly “free.” However, that “freedom” comes with many strings attached. Their rights often depend on the circumstances revolving around the instance, including the crime, severity, and location. The rights that can be potentially stripped include voting, traveling abroad, the right to bear arms or own guns, jury service, employment, public benefits and housing, and parental benefits.

The loss of all or some of the rights mentioned above, many previously incarcerated individuals find it challenging to find employment due to their criminal records.  Those who do manage to find work, the majority make well below the median wage. 

In an interview with NPR, Dominique Morgan discusses the issues with prison labor. Morgan addresses how he worked for a company, Oriental Trading, making tablecloths. When he was released from prison, he went to Oriental Trading to apply for the same job he had while incarcerated. Oriental Trading told Morgan that the application was denied because they didn’t hire individuals with criminal records. 

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If prison is about rehabilitation, why are previously incarcerated persons thrown out on the street with such limited options?

Criminal Record = No Voting In Some States

In most states, prisoners are barred from voting until sentences are completed; they’re barred for a lifetime in some states. Only in Maine and Vermont are currently incarcerated and previously incarcerated individuals given their right to vote. 

It’s first essential to realize crime is subjective and secondly understand that whether incarcerated individuals are criminals or not, they still make up “the people” of the United States. 

Incarceration And Income Level

The Brookings Institute conducted a study of incarcerated individuals. It surveyed their income levels 2 years before prison and a year after. 55.1 % of individuals made no income 2 years before prison. 44.5 % of individuals made zero income a year after incarceration, and 35.7% of individuals made $1-$15,000 their first year of releasement.

Brookings’ findings point out an issue with the cycle of poverty and prison, but it also shows that there isn’t much rehabilitation taking place. The United States Social Security Administration reports the 2019 median wage as 34,248.45.

(If you’re wondering why I don’t use the average, it’s because when you take an average of wages ranging from zero to billions, the outliers skew the result. However, we can assume that since most people fall in the middle class, we can take the middlemost wage (the median wage) and assume most people earn something near this amount.) 

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With 80.2% of previously incarcerated individuals making below minimum wage, previously incarcerated individuals and their families are more likely to succumb to the hardships of poverty– homelessness, starvation, malnutrition, etc. 

Due to the likely hood of poverty, recidivism rates increase. Brookings states that “Boys who grew up in families in the bottom 10 percent of the income distribution were 20 times more likely to be in prison on a given day in their early 30s than children born in top ten percent of families.”  Which means when incarcerated individuals raise families in poverty, their children are more likely to wind up in jail. 

The data shows, “Almost one in ten children born to families in the bottom 10 percent were therefore incarcerated at age 30.” Incarceration haunts not only the individuals but their families and those who rely on them as well.