Most of the nation's 800,000 incarcerated workers hold jobs similar to those on the outside. The racial reckoning has promoted a reevaluation of penal labor as a form of legalized slavery. Prisoners have little say, and face punishment if they refuse to work. Activists are pressing for an end to work requirements, or at the least, higher wages, reports Stateline. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Global Human Rights Clinic of the University of Chicago's School of Law released a "Captive Labor" report in June calling for the elimination of any laws and policies that punish incarcerated people who are unwilling to work. Other groups and lawmakers insist prisoners must work to maintain prison facilities. California state Sen. Steve Glazer favors legislative solutions to inequalities in the criminal justice system, including raising inmate pay.
In March, Colorado enacted a law to pay the state minimum wage to inmates who are within a year of their release date. Colorado state Rep. Matt Soper said, "We need workers, and they need to gain skills before release." Due to staffing shortages, Colorado inmates have been unable to participate in Transitional Work Opportunity programs. Prison minimum wage bills are pending in New York and Illinois. Since 2019, bills have failed in Arizona, Maryland, Mississippi, Nevada, Texas and Virginia, says the ACLU. Cheap prison labor is profitable for states, valued at about $2 billion in 2021, says the "Captive Labor" report. The value of labor to maintain prisons is unknown, but was estimated in 2004 at $9 billion.