Want to end mass incarceration fast? Pay prisoners the minimum wage

Paying prisoners fairly would make it impossible to keep so many people in prison.

Photo: Prisoners work on a U.S. Navy ship in 2012. (Courtesy of Joanna Poe/Flickr)

Undocumented immigrants detained in hundreds of private prisons across the country won a judgment from a Colorado district judge allowing a class-action lawsuit against private operators’ labor policies to move forward in July. Detainees are paid $1 for an eight-hour work shift, according to NPR.

But citizens in prisons across the country also earn minimal pay while working for the private companies that operate many government prisons. Nearly all prisoners who work (and all able-bodied federal prisoners have to work) are paid next to nothing to make products for government use and private sale.

Enforcing minimum wage laws for prisoners would accelerate the destruction of our prison-industrial complex. Already unsustainable prison costs would skyrocket, and we wouldn’t be able to afford it.

Columbia Professor of History Steve Fraser and Joshua Freeman, professor at Queens College and CUNY, stitch together the American tradition of prison labor. In the North, prisoners were used to compete against the slave states as early as the 1820s. After the Civil War, “convict labor” grew in the South—along with Jim Crow—to return recently-freed black citizens to a state of slavery. In 1871, the Virginia Supreme Court actually declared prisoners to be “slaves of the state.”

The culmination of labor activism in the 1920s and 30s put an end to this first wave of prison production for private producers. Southern prisoners were diverted to chain-gang infrastructure projects while Northern prisons switched from “hard labor” to the “numbing, brutalizing idleness” of “hard time.”

But Fraser and Freeman say that convict labor is back, and bigger than it was before. “The system of leasing out convicts to private enterprise was reborn” in the 1980s, they write, and now private convict labor employs more people than any Fortune 500 company. African Americans are disproportionately represented in convict labor, much as they were from the Civil War through the 1930s.

Inmates work on the renovation of the U.S.S. Wisconsin in Norfolk, Virginia in 2012. (Photo courtesy of Joanna Poe/Flickr)
Inmates work on the renovation of the U.S.S. Wisconsin in Norfolk, Virginia in 2012.

Convict labor has a dirty, sordid history rooted in slavery and oppression, but the historical truths underlying mass incarceration, and the clear racial bias of our justice system today, have not been enough to encourage non-partisan agreement that the system is unjust.

The prison reform movement has grown for a far less moral reason: jailing millions of people costs a lot of money.

Prisons cost local, state, and federal governments a collective $74 billion dollars in 2007, up from $20 billion in 1982. That figure doesn’t account for the nearly $50 billion spent on trials, courts, and judges or the $104 billion spent on policing. Pennsylvania alone spends 7 percent of its annual budget on corrections, which is up from 2 percent in the 1980s.

The United States accounts for almost 25 percent of the global inmate population, with almost 2.3 million people in jails and prisons in 2013 and another 4.6 million people under supervision.

Right now, inmates who work for the federal UNICOR program, also known as Federal Prison Industries, earn at most $1.15 per hour, just 16 percent of the federal minimum wage of $7.25. Some receive as little as 23 cents an hour, according to CNN Money, which is about 3 percent of the federal minimum.

If private prison operators can push their cost per person below the government’s per person payment rate, they get to keep the balance—and make a profit. This creates perverse incentives, such as reduced amenities or security, and it pushes companies to use prisoners’ labor to clean facilities, cook food, and make products. They don’t have to pay prisoners nearly as much as they would have to pay civilians.

A federal mandate that prisoners earn the federal minimum wage would increase labor costs by between 84 and 97 percent, the difference between UNICOR’s wage rates and the minimum wage, making it much more difficult for private prisons to turn a profit.

The politics of prisons are less contentious than in the 1980s, largely because conservatives have backed away from “law and order” policies due to escalating costs. The business community also takes issue with unfair competition from prison wages so low they would be illegal in private industry.

CNN Money interviewed irate factory owners and managers who felt that the low wages and absence of benefits the government provides to working inmates was unfair competition, and a political fight forced UNICOR to cancel a plan to poach a longstanding contract for U.S. Air Force windbreakers.

Progressives already demand an end to mass incarceration on moral and historical grounds, and the business community doesn’t want to compete for contracts against private prisons with almost no labor costs. Fair wages for prisoners would bring two other key groups on board: state governments and conservative politicians.

No one is willing to pay the true cost of mass incarceration.

Zac Bears can reached at zac@dblstand.com.

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