Since the beginning of America, leaders have been searching for the cheapest labor they can find. This was once in the form of slaves, but has since been replaced by inmates. Inmates work for far under the minimum wage, and research from Prison Policy Initiative found how much working prisoners earn. The article states, “The average of the minimum daily wages paid to incarcerated workers for non-industry prison jobs is now 86 cents… The average maximum daily wage for the same prison jobs has declined… to $3.45 today.” For regular prison jobs, the most common form of prison labor, there are six states that do not pay their inmates for performing this type of work. Also for regular prison jobs, the highest hourly wage in the United States is 40 cents, and there are 31 states whose minimum hourly wage is 15 cents or lower and 24 states whose maximum hourly wage is 50 cents or lower. The wages they uncovered do not include any deductions, which in reality often leave inmates with less than half of their gross pay.
Inmates need higher wages for many reasons. Wages allow incarcerated people to purchase personal items not provided by the prison, pay ever-increasing fees, and bridge the gap after release. Many items are not provided or provided scarcely by prisons, such as feminine hygiene supplies, as I mentioned in one of my previous posts. They have to purchase pretty much everything above the barest necessities (and sometimes those too) with their hard-earned pennies. In many prisons, the hourly wage is less than the cost of a simple chocolate bar at the commissary. Saving up for a $10 phone card would take almost two weeks for an incarcerated person working in a Pennsylvania prison. Many of them have legal fines to pay off and families to support on the other side of the fences. Often they come out more indebted than when they went in.
Not only does the inability to earn real money impair incarcerated workers while inside prison, it also damages their chances of success upon release. With little to no savings, it’s impossible to afford the immediate expenses that hit them when released — food, housing, transportation, healthcare, child support and supervision, school, previous legal fines, to name a few. To add onto these challenges, according to Prison Policy Initiative, “people with felony convictions are often ineligible for government benefit programs like welfare and food stamps, and face barriers, to finding stable housing or employment.” Prisoners may leave just a bus ticket and only $50 of gate money, money paid to a prisoner upon release, if they have no other savings.
John Kovensky from “The New Republic” interviewed Bob Sloan, who served a ten year sentence in a Florida prison. In prison, he was given opportunities most inmates can only dream of— an education, career training, and a decently paying job. While in prison, Kovensky wrote, “he (Sloan) got a degree in architectural design and worked as a draughtsman for a company called PRIDE, a prison industries company that also focuses on rehabilitation. He’ll be the first to tell you that the work he did in prison transformed him. ‘When I got out of there, job placement worked with me and I got two different jobs with them. I got on my feet—got my own home, my own car. I was on probation, and got all that taken care of. [Prison labor] introduced me back into society. That was a big impact and a big help.’ While in prison, Sloan was able to pay off all $10,000 of his restitution through his work as a draughtsman. He left prison in 1990, having paid off his debt to society and having gained the ability to contribute in a concrete (and beneficial) way through the skills he developed ‘on the inside.’”
If rehabilitation is truly a goal for our prisoners, prison work isn’t always bad, as Sloan’s experience shows. He is a perfect example of the benefits of paying minimum wage for prisoners. However, Sloan’s experience is rare. Sloan even admitted that there’s been a major shift in prison labor’s purpose. He stated, “‘It’s no longer dedicated to improving skills of inmates but directed to getting the highest profits prison labor organizations can get.’” Working inmates lack nearly all of the basic rights of working Americans outside of prison: minimum wage, worker’s compensation if injured in an accident, the right to unionize, and more. Plus, although one might think using prison labor saves money, our economy is actually losing money because of this. Some research shows that “prisoners’ potential economic output could add up to $125 to each US citizen annually, if inmates worked at the minimum wage.” Not only does it create more problems, but it hinders American society financially, as well.
Although the government may believe they benefit from exploiting the cheapest labor they can find, this does anything but benefit Americans. Prisoners jobs range anywhere from packing meat, to answering calls at AT&T, to sewing uniforms for McDonald’s employees. According to the Chicago Tribune, “all of these activities put prisoners in direct competition with blue-collar American workers; the latter essentially have no chance.” Because what major company would choose minimum-wage workers over those who work for no money if they had the choice? Paying prisoners minimum wage would not only benefit the inmates who continued to work, but it would also open up more job opportunities for low-wage American workers outside of prison.
In a study conducted by Tom Petersik, a labor economist for the federal government who has extensively studied the problems that come with prison labor, Petersik gathered five of America’s top economists (including Nobel prize-winner Gary Becker and Steven Levitt of Freakonomics fame). After considerable research and producing a multitude of written documents, the five economists agreed that “virtually every stakeholder in the U.S. economy would be better off if people who were incarcerated were fully integrated into the U.S. labor force, and were responsible in meeting their obligations to their communities, families, and victims.”
By “fully integrated,” the economists mean receiving those basic rights I mentioned earlier — minimum wage, workers compensation, the right to unionize. The five concurred that depriving inmates of these rights deprives both their victims of potential compensation and the economy of a large workforce. This also negatively impacts the families of those incarcerated, who rarely receive crucial financial support from the inmate because they are making little to no money for their efforts. Children of those incarcerated often end up on public assistance, something that may be reduced if their incarcerated parent was able to provide some monetary support.
Not only is paying minimum wage to prisoners the right thing to do morally and logically, it is also the right thing to do financially. Although it might be easy to assume that exploiting the cheapest labor possible is a smart business move, the data shows otherwise. If the goals of our prisons are retribution, incapacitation, deterrence and rehabilitation, paying prisoners minimum wage is clearly a crucial step in that direction.Tags: economy incarcertion Minimum Wage
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