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Minimum Wage for Inmates and Detainees? The Start of an Exploration

Connie M. Razza

On April 10, the Prison Policy Initiative released an updated comprehensive state-by-state list of wages paid to incarcerated people. In a surprising finding, PPI found that:

Prisons appear to be paying incarcerated people less today than they were in 2001. The average of the minimum daily wages paid to incarcerated workers for non-industry prison jobs is now 87 cents, down from 93 cents reported in 2001. The average maximum daily wage for the same prison jobs has declined more significantly, from $4.73 in 2001 to $3.39 today.

For me this raises a core question: What if people imprisoned in our criminal justice and immigration detention systems were entitled to be paid at or above the statutory minimum wage for the work they do while incarcerated or detained?

WARNING: This blog is filled with problems rather than solutions, questions rather than answers, and hypotheses rather than conclusions.

HOPE: My hope is that folks will respond to the blog or to me directly ([email protected]) with your thoughts about these ideas, areas for further inquiry, folks who are already working in this arena, etc.

As a person who has been immersed in workers’ rights advocacy for a decade and a half, my instinct is to consider wage protections and other labor standards as solutions. It is not typically the starting point or policy solution for much of the conversation about either prison labor or the broader issue of prison conditions for people inside our justice system today.

And, understandably so. Our criminal justice system is deeply rooted in the systemic racism that has underpinned our economy from the foundation of the nation. Several accounts have noted the ways in which prisons filled the labor void left by slavery. This minimum wage proposal does not tackle this domination fully or directly. In light of the fact that the forced labor of prisoners is allowed by the very amendment that abolished slavery and that the conditions in prisons are inhumane (overcrowding, inedible food, and inadequate medical care), it is clearly urgent that we tackle the broad issue of prison conditions.

Notably, although the 13th amendment permits slavery or involuntary servitude as a punishment for a crime, it does not require it. So, I think a state-level proposal of guaranteeing and enforcing that people who are imprisoned are paid at least the minimum wage deserves real scrutiny. I am not the first to suggest it (for instance, Chandra Bozelko, a blogger incarcerated in York Correctional Institution, proposed it recently in the National Review).

The idea suggests a range of questions:

1. What other kinds of protections would need to be in place in order to protect the minimum wage guarantee?

In order for the minimum wage to meaningfully stick, I hypothesize that people in prisons or detention centers would need to be guaranteed basic labor protections. For instance, wage and hour, health and safety, and workers’ compensation provisions should all apply. Notably, the rights to refuse work and to collectively bargain over the terms and conditions of work would also be vital to ensuring that people are not being compelled to work and that they are able to enforce the rights they have.

Furthermore, we would need to protect prisoners and their families against predatory fees that erode the value of their earnings within the prison or detention center. In addition to deductions for room & board and victim restitution, prison wages are diminished by exorbitant costs for phone calls home, clothes and linens, and medical care. These fees leave many re-entering community members in debt for the time they’ve served, even if they have been working throughout it.

What other kinds of protections would need to be in place to ensure that the minimum wage guarantee would be meaningful?

2. What effect would paying a fairer cost for the labor of incarcerated or detained people on mass incarceration?

Mass incarceration has been driven by a number of factors: deinstitutionalization and the broader decision to treat mental health and addiction issues through the criminal justice system rather than in medical settings, the criminalization of poverty, tough-on-crime laws and sentences that responded to Dog Whistle “law and order” calls, and discriminatory policing and convictions.

But incarceration has long provided industry with labor well below the market cost, like offshoring to sweatshops in distant lands. Incarcerated labor does not complicate logistics nearly as much as offshoring and it is marketed as “rehabilitative.” Another distinction from offshoring is that incarcerated people are pressed into labor for private enterprises, but also for the prison and detention center facilities themselves. In other words, private industry profits from prison labor and prisons couldn’t run without it.

So, could the raising the cost of prison labor help motivate a reduction in mass incarceration? Could it also disincentivize privatizing prisons, both from the perspectives of the state and private prison companies?

Relatedly, I think that we would want to model what would happen to the number and quality of jobs in prisons and detention centers. In particular, because I am suggesting a state-level reform, I am particularly interested in how these state prisons would compete with neighboring (likely cheaper) states for private corporate clients.

Although a slightly different line of question: how would this dramatic shift in the cost structure of prison labor impact jobs and industry outside of prisons?

3. What happens when people return to their communities?

I posit that if people in prison and detention earn at least minimum wage and are able to hold a greater proportion of their earnings in trust for when they are released, they will have more resources with which to start their lives outside. Further, with experience in jobs that are valued as work outside of prison and detention, I hypothesize that re-entering workers will be better received in the labor market. I would suggest that two necessary steps toward this outcome would be: (1) a program with the private companies that profit from prison labor to transition re-entering people into their workforce outside of prison and (2) more concentration on work programs geared toward job training and apprenticeships for positions that will be in demand in the economy at large. Recidivism is strongly tied to the lack of available jobs and housing. I believe that the minimum wage protections I’m suggesting would help set returning community members up for success in their reentry.

4. What opportunities to improve conditions for incarcerated and detained people might be threatened by such an approach?

As with any campaign or policy proposal, the cost of the proposal is as important as the benefits. I invite input on what the costs would be.

I would be interested in considering whether the other conditions in prisons paying at least the minimum wage under fair conditions could be expected to improve. With greater parity (unfortunately, I think we can assume that there will still be disparities between free workers and incarcerated ones) in the quality of jobs for inmates, does the quality of food, medical care, and accommodation improve? Or would these conditions suffer because the overall cost of running the prison would be raised by the cost of prison labor?