[3/24/20] – Prison Labor in the United States: How Prevalent Is It Today?

Today, prison labor is widely used by many states. According to the Prison Policy Institute, approximately half of the current prison inmate population works (approx. 1.15 million inmates). Aside from the typical work duties that are needed to maintain a prison (e.g. cooking, janitorial, laundry, etc.), prisons and inmates also function as both factories and factory workers to produces goods and services.

A Newsweek article reported that in 2017, inmates working under UNICOR, produced $453.8 million in clothing, textiles, office furniture, and electronics. A recent article in Inside Higher Ed further detailed the use of prison inmates to produce office furniture that is utilized in universities. According to the article, universities in some states are required to purchases goods from their states prison labor companies or required to use them as their “preferred choice.” Some states use inmates to fight fires. For example, in California, the CAL FIRE program employs 3,100 inmates. Prisons are also sometimes used as call centers. Mike Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City and former democratic presidential candidate made headline news in December of 2019 for confirming that his campaign used a third-party vendor to contract with a company that uses prison labor to make calls. The campaign claims they did not know of the arrangement. More recently and amidst the current COVID-19 pandemic, prisoners at a New York prison are being utilized to make hand sanitizer. According to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, the state would be using inmates to make produce 100,000 gallons of hand sanitizer. These are just some examples of how states utilize prison labor.

How about inmates’ wages? Data from 2017 shows that inmates across the United States made anywhere from $0.33 to $1.41 for their work in the industry. Inmate firefighters with CAL FIRE have one of the highest paying prison jobs, earning $5.12 a day. The inmates from the Great Meadow Correctional Facility that will be making the hand sanitizer in New York make anywhere from $0.16 to $0.65 an hour. In some states, such as Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Texas, the inmates may not even earn those small wages. It is evident that the prison labor industry is prevalent, but despite these work opportunities that are made available to inmates, activists and prison reformers argue that these practices are exploitative. Not only do inmates make a minuscule amount of money for their work, but they are also not afforded the same protections (e.g. right to organize, better work conditions, etc.) as those who are not incarcerated.

Instructors, click on the link below to download this week’s lecture for use in your classroom.

The deck contains a writing prompt, a debate question, as well as other assessment questions.

Download the PowerPoint Lecture Spark for Prison Labor in the United States: How Prevalent Is It Today?



  • Writing: Do you believe that inmates who work within the prison labor industry should be afforded the same protections as individuals who are not incarcerated? Why or why not?
  • Debate: During a national crisis like COVID-19, prison labor can be justified to make essential products like hand sanitizer.
  • Poll: Do you believe that prison labor is exploitative to inmates?
  • Short Answer: Why has the prison labor industry in the United States become more prevalent?

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Photo Credit: governor.ny.gov, Office of Governor Andrew Cuomo

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