In a billion-dollar prison labor market, wages for incarcerated people nationwide have declined since 2001, a recent report says.
The April report by Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) said the average minimum wages paid per day to incarcerated workers for non-industry prison jobs is now 86 cents, down from 93 cents in 2001. This means that the average maximum daily wage also declined from $4.73 in 2001 to $3.45 today.
“The vast majority of prison labor is not even cloaked in the idea of rehabilitation,” said Heather Thompson of the University of Michigan, as reported in The Economist.
Individual states also employ over 60,000 prison laborers in a market worth well over $1 billion in revenue. California’s industries alone are expected to generate $232 million in sales this year; much of it from construction and textiles; $10 million is also expected from meat-cutting, reported The Economist.
California non-industries jobs pay as low as eight cents to a high of 37 cents per hour, while jobs for state-owned businesses or “correctional industries” pay an hourly low of 30 cents to a high of 95 cents.
“Only about 6 percent of people incarcerated in state prisons earn these ‘higher’ wages,” said the PPI report. “An even tinier portion of incarcerated workers are eligible for ‘prevailing local wages’ working for private businesses that contract with states through the PIE (Prison Industry Enhancement) program.”
At least seven states appear to have lowered their maximum wages. South Carolina no longer pays wages for most regular prison jobs assignments that paid up to $4.80 per day in 2001.
Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia and Texas also don’t pay for regular prison jobs, reported PPI.
The majority of jobs are custodial, maintenance, grounds-keeping or food service in the institutions that confine them.
The report observes that incarcerated people have little possibility of earning “real money” and that “hurts their chances of success when released.” Even so, “The meager earnings from prison work assignments can be essential to a person’s success – and even survival – when they return to their community.
“With little to no savings, how can they possibly afford the immediate costs of food, housing, healthcare, transportation, child support and supervision fees?” asked the PPI report.
On the federal level, the Federal Prison Industries earned $500 million in sales in 2016, while paying prisoners roughly 90 cents an hour to produce everything from mattresses, spectacles, road signs and body armor for government agencies. The prisoners also produced official seals for the Department of Defense and Department of State, a bureau spokesman confirmed to The Economist.
“The question of wages paid for prison labor is an important one, especially when we consider the relative costs of fees charged and things sold to incarcerated people,” said the PPI report. “The value of a dollar is different when you earn pennies per hour.”
These wages don’t include deductions that can be used to pay court-assessed fines, court costs, and victim witness assessments. New Mexico deducts 15 to 50 percent of each paycheck for Crime Victims Reparations Fund, discharge money and family support. California deducts 55 percent (50 percent to court-assessed fines and a 5 percent administrative fee).
“These policies arguably serve legitimate purposes, but such deductions also mean that $1 per day earned to make day-to-day life behind bars more bearable is really 50 cents or even less,” the report noted.
An incarcerated woman in Colorado has to save up two weeks’ wages to buy a box of tampons, the report stated, while people in a Pennsylvania prison have to save up close to two weeks for a $10 phone card. In Massachusetts, at least half of a prisoner paycheck goes into a savings account to pay for expenses after release.
The public must acknowledge that almost everyone in prison will eventually be released, the report noted.
“Their success and independence depends largely on financial stability, which is undermined by low wages, nickel and diming through ‘user fees,’ mandatory deductions, and work that does little to prepare them for work outside of prisons,” said the report.
“And they may leave prison with just a bus ticket and $50 of ‘gate money,’ if they have no other savings,” the report added. “Forward-thinking policymakers must consider the importance of earnings and relevant job training for people they hope will be independent one day.”
PPI’s “Correctional Control: Incarceration and Supervision by State” issued on June 1, is the first report to aggregate data on all types of correctional control nationwide. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/50statepie.html