State-Imposed Forced Labor: Arguments For or Against Prison Labor

February 15, 2016 Cazzie Reyes Opinion 
Forced Labor

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that, in 2014, there were 1.5 million people in state and federal prisons in the United States. In 2005, a census of state and federal correctional facilities showed that 54% of inmates were in facilities with work programs. Most of the work assignments in these places were related to the maintenance of the prison: cleaning dishes, washing laundry, etc. On the other hand, about 62,600 (4% of the prison population) were in correctional industries (i.e., prison programs that produce goods and services for the market).

Below is a summary of mainstream arguments for or against the use of prison labor.

Access to Job Skills Training

Types of work programs vary, and some involve training in computer coding, skilled manufacturing and auto repair which could help prepare prisoners for jobs after release.

Development of Soft Skills

Gina Honeycutt, Executive Director of the National Correction Industries Association, points out that these work programs give prisoners responsibilities and expectations. For example, inmates learn how to work within a unit and are able to develop communication skills.

Reduction in Recidivism

The California Prison Industry (CALPIA) found that participants in the CALPIA program were less likely to reoffend or return to prison.

Positive Feedback from Inmates

Jelena Supica, an inmate in California’s firefighter program, says, "It is controversial. You could look at it that way, as being exploited for labor. But you've got to look at it as the glass half full, because I was a lost little girl before I came here. This program is helping us to become helpful members of society. It's beautiful. If anything, they should open more camps like these." 

Partially Pays for Prison Upkeep

The Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program pays the minimum wage and “generates products and services that enable inmates to make a contribution to society, help offset the cost of their incarceration, compensate crime victims and support their families.”

Indeed, other than the issue of rights, discussion on the use of prison labor tends to center on the profitability of the whole system.

Who is the American prison labor system designed to benefit?
“We’ve farmed out so many correctional services to private corporations that criminal justice is no longer a government function.” -Chandra Bozelko


Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News and executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center, states, "This is a prime example of how prison slavery undermines salaries and wages for non-prisoners. If they weren't having the prisoners do the work for whatever pittance they pay them, they would be paying non-prisoners 15-20 dollars an hour plus benefits."

Compelled Labor

In the Louisiana State Penitentiary, once cleared by medical staff, inmates are required to work. There are very few exceptions, and those who refuse might be placed in solitary confinement, lose earned recreation time or risk losing family visitation privileges.

Risk of Injury

From acquiring severe burns to losing body parts, there are plenty of documented injuries in prison work programs.

Lack of Rights and Protections

In prison, typical wages range from nothing at all to $0.23-$1.15/hour. There are no unions, safety regulations, pension, social security, sick leave, overtime pay or other benefits and protections. Courts, in the past, have ruled that inmates are not protected by labor laws.

Topics: Forced Labor

About the Author

Cazzie Reyes

Cazzie Reyes graduated from Bradley University with a Bachelor's degree in International Studies and a minor in Women's Studies.