The Economics of Incarcerated Labor in the United States.

USA vice president, Kamala Harris

By: Anna Iran Abani

Work that is performed in prisons may have evolved over the last century, but the labor has always played a large role in the economy of the United States bringing into question the economic impact cheap labor has had on increasing the wealth inequality gap.

         Incarceration has heavy and deep roots in the United States with the transition from slavery to Jim Crow style laws, to a systematically skewed imprisoning system. The list of systematically skewed problems is large, containing gender, ethnic background, levels of education, economic divide, accumulation of unpayable incarceration fees and so on and so forth. When looking specifically at the economic divide, multiple roads arise – there is the economic background of individuals before incarceration, the economic support individuals have access to after incarceration and then there is the economic production of an individual while they are currently incarcerated. There is a financial burden to the state and federal government by means of housing, feeding and detaining individuals but individuals who are incarcerated also work, or in other words, contribute to the economy while in prison.

         The argument of if incarcerated people should be working at all can be nulled by the number of previously incarcerated people who have come out and said their daily work is precious time they look forward to, both physically and mentally (Jackson). The question now shifts to not if incarcerated people should be working but how they should be working. Daily work can look like jobs that are available outside the walls of prisons such as janitorial work, food service and plumbing (Jackson). Increasingly though, incarcerated work is being pursued by private industries for production of goods. These workplace situations look less like work that is available after these individuals are finished with their sentencing and more like the images of sweatshop work that are snuck out of countries like Vietnam, China, and Thailand. On top of having to do work which will not be available outside of incarceration, the 13th Amendment allows for inmates to be paid less than a single dollar per hour by for profit companies. Looking at the United States current model of mass incarceration in the context of economics opens a series of questions. What has incarcerated work looked like since the Civil War? Have private companies always had access to hiring incarcerated people for labor? And finally, what are the economic withdrawal companies are taking from the United States overall when deciding to hire incarcerated individuals at below minimum wage instead of hiring non-incarcerated citizens at minimum wage?

         To understand the United States current laws around work done by inmates, there is context which is needed concerning a post-Civil War country. At the end of the Civil War, the creation of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 ended slavery, stating the economic practice as unconstitutional. However, there is a loophole stating work as a punishment for a person sentenced to imprisonment was within the Thirteenth Amendment and therefore legal in the eyes of the Constitution. This loophole was used by manufactures that relied heavily on free labor for production to support a collapsing economy in the southern states – the collapse due to manufacturing economic structures that did not allow for payment of employees within its model.

Another act of suppression by southern states came with the passing of a series of laws we now refer to as “Black Codes” (Robinson). Crimes under these laws included assembly, interracial relationships, selling produce or other agricultural products without written permission of an employer, practicing any occupation other than servitude without a court ordered licence and even the act of unemployment (State Law). These “crimes” were punishable by imprisonment, and therefore forced labor under the Thirteenth Amendment. A fallout of being so easily imprisoned is forced abandonment of minors, or in layman’s terms, an individual being forced to leave their children as orphans. Orphaned minors of imprisoned people, particularly former slaves and their descendants, were removed from their homes by the state then required to apprentice by the courts to private employers, some former slave plantations, until the age of 21 (State Law). In the context of minors being forced into labor against their wills by the people they were apprenticing under, the image of a post-slavery America did not look very different.

From the years 1866 to 1869, a series of southern states began leasing out inmates to private companies for labor – Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, and Florida being the first. The act of leasing out inmates, otherwise known as “a convict leasing system”, grew from a want to rid the state and their penitentiaries of the responsibility of maintaining the prison population and a want from industries for cheap labor. The convict leasing system started with field work in the agricultural sector and quickly caught the attention of larger private companies working in other sectors of the economy such as coal, logging, and railroad expansion (McCollom). Lessees had very little government oversight, resulting in poor working conditions and an inadequacy of basic necessities leading to inhumane conditions. However, horrifying the conditions of incarcerated people whose conviction would not have held against a white individual, the crumbling economy of the southern states began to bounce back during these times.

In the following decades, the southern economy and its return began to catch federal attention and with political attention comes concerns. United States Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover called attention to the “ruinous and unfair competition between prison-made products and free industry and labor” (Sloan). In response, two different acts were enacted by Congress – the Ashurst-Sumners Act of 1935 and the Walsh-Healey Act of 1936. Walsh-Healey regulated, and controlled goods produced by inmates and Ashurst-Sumners prevented the transportation and commerce of those goods across state lines (Sloan). It was not until 1979 when Congress passed the Prison-Industries Act which established both the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program and the American Legislative Exchange Council. This is the act that allowed for incarcerated labor to be used by third party companies to both purchase and distribute across state lines. Here is when we see a switch from manual labor to the production of goods.

The profits made by private companies which had chosen to use incarcerated people for labor grew exponentially in the decades following. The industry of incarcerated labor is currently worth a billion dollars and growing. When speaking about this exponential growth in generalities, most Americans are unaware that they are speaking about a government owned corporation called UNICOR. This corporation is formerly known as the Federal Prison Industries program which was created in 1934 as a prison labor system for incarcerated people. It wasn’t until 1977, only two year before Congress passed the Prison-industries Act, in which the program became a corporation now known as UNICOR. This government owned corporation pays incarcerated people $0.23 to $1.15 per hour to produce goods for other federal agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Treasury, the Federal Bureau of Prisons and finally the Department of Defense, making up for over fifty percent of sales. As we enter the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, UNICOR is producing “interceptor body armor vest” with the intention of selling abroad to international customers (Stevenson), or in layman’s terms, a corporation owned by the United States government is producing war-based goods by means of incarcerated people and their labor to sell at a profit to other countries and their governments.

In California, multiple class-action lawsuits are being taken against private detention centers where ICE is currently holding immigrants awaiting court hearings for their legal status. In the detention centers, immigrant people are required to work for one dollar an hour or face repercussions such as solitary confinement. Punishments like this can, and usually do, interfere with court dates pertaining to their immigration cases (Stevenson). The situation for American citizens is already questionable from both an economic and a humanitarian side. The involvement of immigrants who may or may not be here legally, has no ground to stand on with any spoken political ideology.

The psychological toll an immigrant has endured before even entering an ICE detention center is a topic all onto itself. However, the psychology behind an incarcerated citizen and their work can branch into two consistent situations – one where the incarcerated person is required to do work that is both needed for daily living and is satisfactory for a modern resume. Examples of this kind of work are janitorial and food service. The second situation is where an incarcerated person is required to do work that is not recreatable in society and is questionable morally. Examples of this would be incarcerated people manufacturing American flags and military uniforms (King).

On top of what an individual may psychologically process as they are incarcerated, there is a generational animosity at the wealth and income inequality gap that was produced by “black codes” and the separation of children from their parents for laws that would not be applicable if the individual had happened to be born white instead. Four generations of each generation acquiring more wealth and four generations of incarceration have caused the correlation of wealthy whites and poor blacks.

 The large profits being made by this and other government owned corporations, such as CEO Group which provided private prisons after the War on Drugs was declared by President Ronald Reagen, are kept within the economic circle of the Government Departments they sell to and within the private prison industry itself, with the trickle of income incarcerated people receive paid back to the prison in means of fees and others cost such as phone calls. If the production of these products were produced by non-incarcerated people at minimum wage and a possibility of union representation, the economic impact would be positively systemic for communities with both high incarceration rates and high levels of unemployment.

Job opportunities is a bipartisan issue which carries similar loads through generations. The need for reliable, local work is a basic human need in the United States today. The manufacturing factory work of the last century has vanished along with the higher quality of life those jobs provided Americans of all backgrounds. The majority of Americans would benefit if incarcerated people were given jobs related to job training and if the manufacturing jobs available to them at below minimum wage were instead available to non-incarcerated people who desired to work.

Work Cited

Jackson, J. (April 14, 2021). “Mass Incarceration by the Numbers, Numbers to Names”. Evergreen State College. The Equity Symposium.

King, J. (October 4, 2017). “There’s a Pretty Good Chance Your American Flag Was Made by a Prisoner”. MotherJones.

McCollom, J. (2021). Convict Leasing System.

Robinson, M.A. (April 7, 2017). “Black Bodies on the Ground”. Journal of Black Studies. doi: 10.1177/0021934717702134

Sloan, B. (March 2010). “The Prison Industries Enhancement Certification Program”. United States of America. Prison Legal News.


State Law. (1865). “Black Codes”. United States of America. The Constitutional Rights Foundation. des.html

Stevenson, K. (July 6, 2020). “Profiting off of Prison Labor”. Berkley, California. Business Review Berkley.

Editor’s note: Anna Iran, born in USA, is a daughter of an ex-political prisoner in Iran.

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