Incarcerated workers in the U.S. produce $11 billion in goods and services annually but receive pennies an hour for prison jobs, says a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Nearly two-thirds of prisoners have jobs in state and federal lockups, about 800,000 people, The Guardian reports. ACLU researchers say the report raises concerns about the systemic exploitation of prisoners, who must work sometimes difficult and dangerous jobs without basic labor protections and little or no training. Most incarcerated workers are tasked with prison maintenance that is crucial to keep the facilities running, say ACLU researchers, who worked with the University of Chicago Law School’s Global Human Rights Clinic. “State governments and the prison system are extracting tremendous value from a captive and exploited workforce all while claiming they can’t afford to pay them a liveable wage,” said report author Jennifer Turner.
More than 80 percent of incarcerated laborers do general prison maintenance, including cleaning, cooking, repair work, laundry and other essential services. For paid non-industry jobs, workers make an average of 13 cents to 52 cents an hour. Seven states – Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas – pay nothing for the vast majority of prison work. Incarcerated workers who are paid may see most of their pay withheld for “taxes, room and board expenses, and court costs”, the report states. “We are saving [the prisons] millions of dollars and getting paid pennies in return … All the jobs we are doing in prison are not really benefiting us; it is more benefitting the prison system. I work a job making $450 for a whole year,” said Illinois inmate Latashia Millender. More than 75 percent of workers said that if they can’t work or decline to do so, they may be punished, ranging from solitary confinement to the loss of family visits to denials of sentence reductions. Most incarcerated workers are not provided with skills and training for their work that would help them secure jobs when they are released.