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Ending Modern-Day Slavery: The Case for a Prison Minimum Wage - Meera Srinivasan

Updated: Mar 22

Hello, everyone. I’m Meera Srinivasan, a second-year general body member of API from Columbus, Georgia. Today, I’ll be discussing prison labor in the United States.

Many of us know the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution for abolishing slavery. What many of us don’t know is that it contains a loophole.

The 13th Amendment states, "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”[1] This clause allowed for the rapid expansion of the American prison system and what many historians consider the definitive beginning of prison labor in America.

Prison labor, also known as penal labor, refers to labor performed by incarcerated people.[2] From the very beginning, prison labor and the centuries-long institution of slavery have been closely intertwined. Some go as far as to liken American prison labor to a continuation of slavery. Considering its history, they may not be too far off.

The ratification of the 13th Amendment marked a dramatic cultural as well as economic shift within the United States. While Black people within the United States were beginning to be recognized as part of the labor force rather than dehumanized as property, the post-Civil War South saw egregious levels of market collapse and poverty, leading to the exploitation of poor, formerly enslaved Black people as convict labor.[3

Southern lawmakers capitalized on the loophole in the 13th Amendment. Lawmakers passed legislation known as “black codes” that criminalized minor, non-violent offenses by Black people—including but not limited to interracial marriage, buying or selling liquor and unlawful assembly—rapidly increasing prison populations and shaping prison demographics as we know them today.[4,5,6,7] Convict leasing, a system in which prisoners would be forced to provide labor to private entities in exchange for housing, clothing, and food, rose in popularity during the time, becoming a major source of revenue for many states. This had the effect of essentially substituting the labor provided by slavery with the labor provided by convicts.[8

The effects of black codes and other such legislation are present even today: Black males are seven times as likely as white males to be incarcerated and make up a disproportionate amount of the overall U.S. prison population, highlighting the racial disparities that remain as vestiges of slavery and post-war efforts by the South to replace the loss of free labor.[9

Currently, in the U.S., penal labor is seen as a solution to many problems facing prisoners: participating in the prison industry tends to reduce recidivism among convicts and primes prisoners to enter the workforce after their sentence is completed, as well as allows some prisoners to reduce the length of their sentences. However, many argue that the negatives far outweigh the positives. For example, in many states, prisoners are forced to work rather than do it of their own choice. Proponents of prison labor claim the work is completely voluntary—but, when considering that opting out is often punishable by solitary confinement and other such consequences, that becomes harder to believe.[10]

Wages in particular are a key point of criticism. The wages that prisoners receive, if any, often are abysmally low, ranging anywhere from a paltry 30-50 cents per hour in Florida agriculture to nothing at all in Georgia detention centers. Some areas are better off than others; prisoners can earn up to $12 an hour doing industrial work in Minnesota, but this is hardly the case elsewhere.[11]

Legislation regarding a minimum wage for prisoners has only been passed at the local or state level so far, and even then the majority of prisons in the U.S. do not have an established minimum wage. In a 1993 testimony by the U.S. General Accounting Office on paying prisoners minimum wage for labor, Associate General Counsel Lynn H. Gibson stated that many prison systems find paying minimum wage to prisoners (which was $4.25 an hour at the time of the testimony) to be unaffordable, even if fees for room and board were instituted, citing claims that prison labor costs would increase by millions upon millions of dollars per year.[12] This line of reasoning continues to be used to this day, with many prison systems citing high costs as justification for keeping prison labor wages where they are. 

Calls for a prison minimum wage have sprouted all over the country but many have remained unanswered, caught in legislative gridlock. Members of the New York State Senate, for example, have long attempted to pass a bill that would institute a minimum wage of three dollars for incarcerated persons; so far, they have been unsuccessful.[13]

The time to institute a minimum wage for incarcerated people is now. While prison labor may have its benefits, the disadvantages of forcing prisoners to work for little or no pay have devastating rippling effects on society. The lack of a minimum wage in many prisons makes it nearly impossible for prisoners to build any semblance of savings, making post-carceral life all the more difficult and increasing their chances of recidivating. This, in turn, leads to heightened crime and more people behind bars. Prison is supposed to discourage current and potential offenders from reoffending, not increase their likelihood of doing so.

The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, with nearly one out of every 100 Americans behind bars.[14] The cost of incarceration is high, with states spending an average of $45,771 per prisoner per year. In 2020, state governments across the country spent a total of $55 billion on corrections, with the majority of that spending being funneled into state-owned correctional facilities.[15] But prison isn’t just expensive for governments—it’s expensive for prisoners and their families, too.[16] In 2017, families of incarcerated individuals collectively spent $1.6 billion on commissary products and $1.3 billion on phone calls.[17]

Many opponents of unpaid prison labor have called for the 13th Amendment to be revised by removing the clause allowing for involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime. However, anyone mildly aware of U.S. politics will tell you that getting Congress to agree on a single law is hard enough, let alone on a topic as contentious as amending the U.S. Constitution. 

In lieu of amending the Constitution, Georgia and all other states that lack a prison minimum wage should make immediate efforts to institute one via state law, as well as pass an amendment to the state constitution that fully prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude. It is important to note, however, that these laws would only impact inmates in state correctional facilities: federal prisons would still be under the jurisdiction of the federal government. 

Still, implementing a state prison minimum wage would dramatically improve post-carceral outcomes for formerly incarcerated persons, as well as reduce crime and recidivism. The majority of incarcerated and detained people in Georgia are imprisoned in local jails and state prisons, over 90% of the state’s total prison population; only 7% are imprisoned in federal prisons.[18]

While instituting a prison minimum wage is important, arguably more important is ensuring that it is a reasonable amount. Take for example California, where prison minimum wages can go as low as $0.08 an hour; while inmates in California are better off than inmates in Georgia, the difference is hardly noticeable.[19] For this reason, the prison minimum wage should be tied to the state minimum wage so that inmates always make a certain percentage of what non-inmates would make. 

For example, let’s set the percentage amount as 50%. If the state minimum wage in California is $16.00 per hour, inmates should not receive any less than $8.00 per hour for their labor. If the state minimum wage in Georgia is $7.25, inmates should not receive any less than $3.63 per hour, and so on. This would allow inmates to be able to build savings prior to their release so that they are able to properly reenter society upon the conclusion of their sentence. 

Furthermore, setting a prison minimum wage would boost the economy. Further incentivizing prisoners to work and increasing their financial stability would allow prisoners to reenter the workforce more easily and reduce the likelihood of recidivating. Lowering the overall prison population would relieve taxpayers of the financial burden of keeping people locked up—around $38.8 billion.[20]

In addition to instituting a minimum wage, state prisons should prohibit prison vendors from overcharging inmates for basic necessities. Prison commissaries usually increase the prices of ordinary items, capitalizing on the desperation of people whose only other option is to settle for inadequate hygiene and food. In a particularly egregious example, a 2022 Nevada state audit found that Keefe Group overcharged prisoners in Nevada by as much as forty percent on most commissary items.[21,22] Keefe Group operates prison commissaries in 14 states and manages distribution centers in 17 states, including Georgia.[23,24] According to the company’s website, Keefe is also a member of the Georgia Jail Administrators’ Association, the Georgia Jail Association, the Georgia Prison Warden’s Association, and the Georgia Sheriff’s Association.[25] If prison vendors continue to inflate prices unregulated, prisoners will continue to suffer from the very issue that the minimum wage aims to solve. 

In any case, the American prison system cannot and should not be left as is. More needs to be done to ensure that prisoners are able to consent to performing labor and are fairly compensated for that labor. Additionally, private vendors should not be allowed to price gouge individuals who lack consumer choice.

Prison itself is the punishment for the crime. Solitary confinement, a common punishment for refusing to work, is positively correlated with a higher recidivism rate.[26] Research suggests that increasing the minimum wage leads to a statistically significant reduction in recidivism for certain offenders.[27] Layering on additional punishments for incarcerated individuals only begets more recidivism, more crime, and more societal inequity. By instituting a prison minimum wage, we can begin solving America’s prison problem.

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