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Forced Labor vs. Forced Idleness

One of the most important battles of criminal justice today should be changing incarcerated laborers’ classification to legal workers. This would provide the same rights and benefits as non-inmate labor and allow prisoners to earn a “livable wage."

You go to work. The company you work for generates revenue from your labors. You come home. Now, in this scenario imagine that you only get paid a few dollars for that day’s labor, or perhaps only a handful of pennies. Maybe you are paid nothing at all, and to top it all off you’re not actually going home after work, at least not today. In a tiny nutshell, that is the current state of our nation’s prison labor and wages. A nation whose rate of incarceration is higher than that of any other country in the world. The entire world! Exploitative and predatory state and federal laws ensure that this pool of cheap labor—incarcerated human beings—continues to exist at the cost of inmates, their families, and even society as a whole.

A criminal justice system in which money and punishment are intertwined is naturally teeming with moral pitfalls. In the United States, ever since the earliest modern prisons of the 1800s, when prison administrators started to use inmate labor to reduce the cost of running prisons, blood was in the water and the sharks swarmed. U.S. lawmakers have now had generations to perfect the narrative that prisoners performing labor as punishment is conducive to their rehabilitation. The name of the game: keep prisoners busy while simultaneously generating revenue, a process that is detrimental to all but those profiting, for the state, or for outside companies. Unfortunately, history has shown us that the effects of this revenue-focused culture has resulted in questionable living and working conditions, a lack of adequate skills training, and an unbelievable amount of disregard for rehabilitation.

My Own Labors

I’ve been incarcerated since 2015. I’ve held a variety of jobs in prison since 2017, with some work assignments being more personally fulfilling than others, but each with similar issues at their core. My prisoner résumé includes separating and counting dirty clothes—yes, unfortunately boxers, too—in the warehouse where I also helped prepare the clean clothes to be passed out. I’ve worked in the kitchen where I started out as a cook whose biggest responsibility was to not clump the grits and make sure to add enough sugar to the oatmeal.

I moved up the ladder, so to speak, with my next job when I became a maintenance worker. In that assignment I was actually taught the basics of a few trades such as HVAC and electrical, and even learned a good bit about welding. As far as a prison work assignment goes, I’d say it’s one of the better ones to prepare an inmate to return back to society, though it’s of those situations where you get out what you put in, which is how I think all prison jobs should be designed. My last job I worked as the guy who keeps the commissary stocked, ordering junk food and hygiene items. It was my favorite job and I didn’t want to lose it, but I got promoted to medium custody and transferred to another facility, which offers more recreational options. Because I’m new, I’m now at the bottom of the list for any job.

So those are just some of the regular duties that prisoners are tasked with doing. But no matter which job you’re assigned to, except under certain circumstances, in North Carolina a laborer gets paid only $1 a day. This law can be found in North Carolina General Statute 148-18 entitled, “Wages, Allowances, and Loans,” which reads: prisoner so paid shall receive more than one dollar ($1.00) per day, unless the Secretary determines that the work assignment requires special skills or training. Upon approval of the Secretary, inmates working in job assignments requiring special skills or training may be paid up to five dollars ($5.00) per day.

To some members of the public that may sound absolutely ridiculous, while others may believe that we shouldn’t be getting paid anything at all, and I’d be willing to bet that that’s the more popular opinion. For those in the latter group, you’ll be happy to know that there are at least six states where prisoners are paid nothing at all for their labors. And even though nationally prisoners produce roughly $2 billion annually in goods, and around $9 billion annually in services, according to a recent American Civil Liberties Union estimate, the nationwide average for prisoner wages maxes out at 52 cents per hour.

For those of you who are in the former group, you’ll be happy to hear that as recently as November 2022, Alabama, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont approved ballot measures that will change their state constitutions to officially prohibit slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment, a right that should have been protected under the 13th Amendment if not for the single line: “except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” This profound loophole allowed our prison system to become perverted by money and resulted in a long history of cheap prison labor.

As crazy as this may sound, prison labor is actually a two-sided coin. For those who do hold jobs, they’re being exploited because of how little they’re paid for their labors. But for prisoners who want jobs, there are not nearly enough to go around. The majority of the prison population is actually unassigned. You might ask why, if prisoners are paid so little, would they wish to have a job assignment? Many of the men I am incarcerated with rely heavily on that single dollar a day. For them, it’s the difference between going to bed with an empty, growling stomach, or having a cup of ramen soup and a pack of crackers holding you over until you can fall asleep.

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These days, after a rapid rise in inflation due to economic factors and a pandemic, the value of a dollar has more significance, especially to those who are incarcerated. And for those in North Carolina, a dollar is about all you’re going to get, at least for the day. I’ve watched with my own eyes as food in the canteen has jumped in price anywhere from 20% to 50%, and in some cases more, to where it was no longer feasible to carry that product. Something about the price of a pickle being higher than my daily wage leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, pun intended. (For the curious, a single pickle currently costs $1.14 at the canteen, before tax.) A dollar may not be much, but in a system that primarily collects people from poverty stricken and less-educated communities, it’s all some people have in here.

Work, or Else

Money has dictated the state of the U.S. prison system since its inception. In order for our current system to succeed under its own standards, it must not only maintain an adequate population, but also ensure that those who are incarcerated perform labor. In order to achieve this goal, laws are in place that essentially force prisoners to work under the threat of punishment. North Carolina General Statutes Section 148-26, “State policy on employment of prisoners,” reads:

a) It is declared to be public policy of the state of North Carolina that all able-bodied prison inmates shall be required to perform diligently all work assignments provided for them. The failure of any inmate to perform such a work assignment may result in disciplinary action. Work assignments and employment shall be for the public benefit to reduce the cost of maintaining the inmate population while enabling inmates to acquire or retain skills and work habits needed to secure honest employment after their release.

To me it’s quite the conundrum how our prison system is able to justify forcing prisoners to work when the people who run prisons will barely lift a finger when it comes to educating those very same prisoners. Why not “force” the incarcerated to gain an education as well? Education in prisons is factually proven to reduce recidivism. Is it because that would then lessen the quantity of their cheap labor pool? Our current system uses these people, myself included, forcing them to use their bodies and not their minds. To simply do, and not think.

The aforementioned statute also went on to state that work assignments are to equip prisoners with what would be considered transferable skills. While there are indeed some jobs that meet this requirement, most are actually redundant and menial in nature. For the majority of inmate laborers, few skills are learned during their incarceration that are relevant to the real-world labor market.

I understand that most of the jobs provided in prison are all necessary and important for running the facility and keeping it functioning efficiently. We do need janitors to keep the prison clean, people to cook food and wash dishes, fold and pass out clothes, along with other essential duties. But it’s the fact that we’re paid so little, given barely any responsibilities, and asked to find fulfillment in jobs that are beneath many prisoners’ potential and capabilities, that degrades us as humans.

Not Protected

Nonworkers by law, prison laborers are not entitled to the rights and protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Among many protections, this act assures that legal workers receive a lawful minimum wage and can expect to work during reasonable hours. With a national average pay of only 52 cents an hour, I’d say that prisoners are far from receiving a respectable minimum wage. Compared to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour—which in today’s labor market, one where salaries are dictated more by the employees than the companies, few people are working for that little—prisoners get paid the slightest fraction of the pay of their unincarcerated counterparts.

In our society the quality of work, as well as the level of appreciation an employer has for an employee, is frequently translated into how much they are paid. Prison is designed as a dehumanizing environment, but it doesn’t have to be. Why not reward and show appreciation to prisoners who work hard, and show a genuine interest in preparing for their return into society? Let’s pay them respectable wages, and teach them relevant skills and financial literacy, so that they might actually have a chance of success upon release. Isn’t that outcome—their success—for the betterment of the community as well?

The scary reality is that the United States has allowed the prison industry to grow in such a way that we’ve become dependent upon it economically. Think about all the people employed by or dependent on the criminal justice system, think about the private prisons, the financial and telecommunications service companies such as JPay and GTL, that would be drastically impacted by a significant reduction in the prison population. In 2020, there were over two million people incarcerated. Why so many? Are Americans just that bad of people, or are our laws and justice system flawed?

The current strategy of our prison system is to extract as much revenue as possible (usually for outside, private, for-profit companies) and to save the state and federal governments as much as possible. To achieve this, convicts are routinely leased or farmed out to other agencies such as the Department of Transportation. Fundamentally, we as a society need to be making a conscious effort to change this philosophy that thrives from borderline slave labor. Let us invest in our prisons and invest in our prisoners in ways that will ultimately reduce prison populations, reduce prison violence, and reduce the heavy burden placed on taxpayers to maintain the backwards prison culture of today. Incarcerated people who work should be treated as lawful employees. But, because we are not, we are not afforded any of the same benefits as those who are. This is yet another violation of prisoners’ rights that perpetuates recidivism.

Incentives and Privileges, Not Benefits

North Carolina’s sentencing guidelines require that people who’ve been convicted of a crime must do at least the minimum amount of time they were sentenced to. This practice is known as mandatory minimums. When sentenced in North Carolina, there are ranges, based on aggravating and mitigating variables, that have a minimum and a maximum amount of time for that sentence to be completed. For example: You commit a crime and are sentenced to five to seven years, you are doing every minute of that five years, and that’s if you’re on your best behavior. If you’re not, you’ll do anywhere after five, up to seven years. If you do all of your potential sentence, that’s that we refer to as “maxing out” your bid. Getting in trouble, or not participating in work or education assignments, is a good way to max out.

In what is often referred to as “the old days,” or “under the old law,” a prisoner used to be able to work their way out the door, meaning if they held a job and stayed out of trouble, they could earn their freedom sooner and go home. With the implementation of mandatory minimums back in the 1990s, this is no longer the case. An inmate can go his entire sentence without getting into trouble, but he will not go home any sooner than his minimum. Doesn’t sound very motivating, does it? Many people and organizations, such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), oppose this.

One of the strategies that the state uses to incentivize prisoners to go along with their work assignments and to stay out of trouble is to grant what’s referred to as “earned time.” These are credited days that are applied to a prisoner’s sentence in order to help get them to their minimums. Losing your job means no longer earning these credits, or at least significantly less, while getting into trouble allows administration to take away the earned time that a prisoner has already gained.

More important than these paltry incentives are the few privileges that we’re allotted, which, at least to me and most fellow prisoners that I know, encourage us to “walk the line.” These include: phone calls, visits, canteen, tablets, and recreation time, to name a handful. Step out of line and you’re subject to lose some, if not all, of these. So, instead of actual worker benefits such as Social Security and Medicare, we’re stuck with minor rewards to keep us in line.

Federal Prison Industries (FPI) is a federally-owned corporation that “employs” federal prisoners to make goods for sale to the federal government. Most prison systems at the state level have equivalents; North Carolina’s is called Correction Enterprises and uses state prisoners to perform similar tasks of producing goods for sale to the state’s government. Because inmates get paid so little and are not classified as actual employees (although I noticed in the North Carolina statutes that prisoner-laborers were sometimes referred to as “employees”), in most cases, inmate labor does not constitute covered employment. What this translates to is real-world advantages for these federal and state corporations, such as not having to pay their share of any FICA taxes, which is a conscious and strategic effort on their part to keep operating costs low. Not funding their share of inmates’ eventual use of Social Security and Medicare allows these prison industries to enjoy the existence of a steady supply of cheap labor, and keep their workers disadvantaged, both inside prison and after their release, further fueling the cycle.

Imagine you’re a prisoner and you’ve worked 20 years at various jobs throughout your sentence. You worked hard, did what’s expected, earned your pennies, earned your credit-days, then finally, finally, are released back out into society. You’re much older than you were going in, and you do have all those years of work experience. But, in the real world how much weight do those menial tasks, or in some cases actual skilled labor, hold with an employer? The harsh reality hits you. You’ve done nothing that’s prepared you for the real-world labor market.

That’s not even the worst part. The real kick in the teeth comes when you eventually go and apply for Social Security, only to realize you did not receive a single quarterly credit during all of those years of labor. And then you learn that your pay was always so low, intentionally, in order to prevent you from reaching the minimum annual wage limit required. Not only are you not receiving any benefits from your years of incarcerated labor, but those same benefits could have gone to your spouse, children, or parents if you were to die. I’m not talking just Social Security here, either, but Medicare and disability benefits as well. Benefits that many prisoners might assume they’re earning while performing incarcerated labor. This assumption is wrong.

An article in the South Carolina Law Review entitled “But Don’t Tell Social Security” explains the situation perfectly:

Inmate Labor does not earn toward benefits for two reasons: first, it is carved out of the statute defining covered employment, and second, even when it may constitute covered employment (as with some Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program jobs), most inmates do not earn sufficient income to surpass the statutory thresholds. I find it unnecessary to withhold benefits that would aid people in poverty. I’m even more confused, though, as to why our system refuses to grant the bare minimum to human beings who are already disadvantaged enough as it is, and who are statistically more likely to turn to crime just to survive. A study by the Brookings Institution found that the majority of ex-cons receive salaries at or below the minimum wage. These benefits could be the difference between an ex-con returning to prison or being a contributing member of society.

Imagine my own surprise while doing research for this article, when I began to understand the true extent of how disadvantaged I’ll be when I get out. I have three consecutive sentences; if I have to do the mandatory minimums on each of those, I won’t be back out in society until the year 2057, when I’m 64 years old. I, along with many others, won’t qualify for Social Security or Medicare even though it’s fair to say I will have worked, in some capacity, most of my life. The discriminatory difference being that I performed my labors behind bars, generating revenue—or cuttings costs—for what could strongly be debated as my “employer.”

The Big Picture

One of the biggest, most important battles of criminal justice today should be changing incarcerated laborers’ classification to legal workers. This would provide the same rights and benefits as non-inmate labor and allow prisoners to earn a “livable” wage. I’m aware that this is a very tough sell politically, but I believe that only highlights how uninformed the public is on this issue.

Pay prisoners a fair wage but charge them for their room and board. Give them bills, garnish their pay, allow them responsibilities. The culture of simply locking us up and throwing away the key is not a sustainable system, the proof of this being how overcrowded and understaffed our prison system is. We should be maximizing the chances of a prisoner getting out and paying taxes from their job, not burdening the state and its citizens with paying roughly $31,000 a year per prisoner.

In 2017, a Louisiana sheriff was caught on camera lamenting new laws that would release some nonviolent offenders early: “they’re releasing some good ones that we use every day to wash cars, to change oil in our cars, to cook in the kitchen, to do all that, where we save money. Well, they’re going to let them out.”

There was an immediate and strong public outcry at these comments, one being from an assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, calling his words “disgusting” and that “what he’s talking about is the economic exploitation of human beings.”

We as a society need to take more of an interest in the people many are so readily willing to classify as “undesirables.” Inmate labor needs to be acknowledged as important and valuable. Many prisoners want to get out and make their lives better, but with so many obstacles in place, it’s no wonder many of them return. For the most part the system is designed for us to fail. We as a society have lost sight as to the purpose of prison. Once these people have paid their debts, they’re supposed to regain their place in society. This isn’t the case. The punishment doesn’t end after a prisoner is released.

Some politicians have recognized the injustices that only serve to further the destabilization of prisoners and their families, and who thankfully have the courage to fight for change. Reformist Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey recently proposed federal legislation that seeks to “end these unfair, abusive labor practices for incarcerated people.” His bills are endorsed by a list of prominent civil and human rights organizations that have a solid history of prison reform involvement.

It’s my hope, along with millions of others, that this is just the beginning of a wave of reformative legislation that will restore some dignity to the incarcerated, and ultimately create a system in which our returning citizens have a fair chance of succeeding. I ask that society not write prisoners and ex-cons off. It’s my belief that if you have the ability to do something, then you have the responsibility to do something (I borrowed that from somewhere). My fellow prisoners and I will work to do our part, we just need the politicians and the public to do theirs.

TYLER BOWMAN is an incarcerated writer serving three consecutive sentences in North Carolina. He’s held a variety of jobs while in prison including maintenance and canteen. His first novel, Legacy of Stars, was published earlier this year and is available at

Dollars & Sense is a non-profit, non-hierarchical, collectively-run organization that publishes economic news and analysis, with the mission of explaining essential economic concepts by placing them in their real-world context. We publish a bi-monthly magazine, as well as economics books that are used in college social science courses, study groups and other educational settings.  Founded in 1974, Dollars & Sense is a publication of Economic Affairs Bureau, Inc., a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. From its beginning, the Economics Affairs Bureau has been a worker-run, collectively managed organization. This organizational structure fits with the mission to challenge orthodox economics, to promote progressive economics, and to help build a movement for a new economic system.