ACLU: ‘Captive Labor Exploitation’ of incarcerated workers produces billions of dollars’ worth of goods and services
In 1852, Fredrick Douglass, the famous slavery abolitionist, gave a spirited speech titled “What, to the American Slave, Is the Fourth of July?” Douglass delivered the speech on July 5 in Rochester, New York, in recognition of the nation’s celebration of its Independence Day.
In 2022, as the country is set to observe another federal holiday, the national prison population can ask “What, to the incarcerated, is Labor Day?”
Recently, California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration, along with the state’s finance department, rejected consideration of amending the state’s constitution to eliminate indentured servitude as punishment for crime. If the bill had passed, it would have allowed prisoners to be paid minimum wage. State officials said it would cost the state billions of dollars annually to pay incarcerated people a minimum wage, according to The Associated Press.
“I hope the state legislators take another look at paying those of us that are incarcerated a minimum wage,” said SQ resident Kevin Robinson, 55, who makes eight cents an hour as a clerk in the prison’s building maintenance. “I’m at an age that it would be hard to pay into my Social Security. It would be nice to make enough money to save when I parole.”
Incarcerated workers are not covered by minimum wage laws or overtime protection and are not afforded the right to unionize, said a newly released ACLU report. The research report, titled Captive Labor: Exploitation of Incarcerated Workers (2022) was jointly released by the ACLU and the University of Chicago Law School Global Human Rights Clinic (GHRC).
According to the report, U.S. law explicitly excludes incarcerated workers from most universally recognized workplace protections.
“From the moment they [prisoners] enter the prison gates, they lose the right to refuse to work,” said the report. “This is because the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which generally protects against slavery and involuntary servitude, explicitly excludes from its reach those held in confinement due to a criminal conviction.”
Incarcerated workers produce at least $2 billion in goods and provide more than $9 billion worth of prison maintenance services annually, noted the report. Incarcerated workers nationwide are paid on average between 15 and 52 cents per hour for non-industry jobs. The CDCR inmate pay-scale for laborers ranges from eight to 37 cents per hour, according to the department.
Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, and Texas pay nothing for the vast majority of prison work, said the report. The same is true for the states of Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, prisoners nationwide were tasked with manufacturing hand sanitizer, masks, medical gowns, face shields, and other personal protective equipment that they were then prohibited from using to protect themselves, said the report.
Some incarcerated people also worked in morgues, transported dead bodies, dug mass graves and built coffins. They washed soiled hospital laundry, disinfected supplies and cleaned medical units.
During COVID outbreaks, incarcerated workers throughout CDCR’s institutions, including San Quentin, were added to critical workers lists to perform labor in food preparation, maintenance, laundry and cleaning, sometimes working double shifts. Prison hospital incarcerated workers cleaned medical units, bringing them in close contact with the novel virus.
“Kudos to those who worked in the hospital, the porters and kitchen workers, because they were our first responders,” said Robinson. “I don’t think they get enough recognition for keeping the prison running.”
The U.S. spends more than $81 billion to run its corrections system including prisons, jails, parole and probation for the more than two million people behind bars, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). State governments spend nearly $50 billion a year for their departments of corrections.
Currently, more than 68% of state prison budgets are spent on prison operations, including over $2 billion each month for correctional staff payrolls, said the BJS report. Incarcerated workers are paid less than 1% of state correctional budgets.
Another major issue for prisoners is to pay back court-imposed restitution. California state courts can impose restitution on prisoners ranging from $200 to $10,000 dollars. Again, the inmate pay-scale for laborers ranges from eight to 37 cents per hour, and the state garnishes up to 50% of the payments for restitution. Under the current pay scheme, it would take close to 126 years for an incarcerated person to pay off a $10,000 dollar restitution.
“Across the country, prisons deduct as much as 80 percent from incarcerated people’s paychecks for court-imposed fines, taxes, family support, restitution and room and board, among other fees,” said the report. “As a result, an incarcerated worker earning a wage of $1 per hour might only receive 50 cents or less. After subtracting for basic necessities, this number is even lower.”
However, most of the work that prisoners do doesn’t provide them an economic future or a social safety net, said the report. Prisoners are explicitly excluded from refundable income tax credits, employment eligibility for Social Security, Medicare, and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). This also applies to unemployment insurance benefits.
“Because of the low wages they [prisoners] are paid, most incarcerated workers also are unable to meet the statutory income thresholds required to qualify for these benefits,” said the report. “Furthermore, the work they perform while incarcerated often does not constitute employment for the purposes of calculating quarters of employment for benefits, so some people may work for long stretches of their lives while incarcerated but, following their release, may no longer have sufficient time left in their working lives to earn the benefits of Social Security.”
Even during the COVID pandemic, incarcerated workers are at the mercy of their employers and can suffer punitive and disciplinary consequences for failure to work, noted the report.
Incarcerated workers in Colorado, who opted out of kitchen work assignments in 2020 due to health concerns, lost “earned time,” meaning their parole eligibility dates were pushed farther out, said the report. Incarcerated workers nationwide who refused to work were subjected to being placed in more restrictive housing units, and loss of phone calls and family visits.
Class-action lawsuits have been filed alleging that state’s prison authorities are violating their state ban on slavery and involuntary servitude by forcing them to work, said the report.
The report suggested a plan to support incarcerated workers by paying them a fair wage that enables them to save for the future, support their families, and sets them up for successful reentry. Studies show that recidivism is reduced when returning citizens have savings and stable employment.
“Even if the state would pay us minimum wages, people would also need to be taught financial literacy,” said Robinson. “A lot of people came to prison at the age of 17 and leaving at 50 years old. They need to learn how to manage real wages to survive in society.”