In a few weeks I'll be hard at work for 12 cents per hour, quite a comedown from my previous hourly pay of almost $1000 per hour. If I'm diligent and lucky, over time my wage could increase to somewhere in the vicinity of 40 cents. I don't yet know what my job will be but do know for a fact that my services will be put to some, if not good, use. The prison-industrial complex likes to keep its prisoners busy, after all, and cut-rate (some might call it "slave") labor is just too good a deal to pass up.
Twelve cents per hour might not sound like much. And it isn't. But it's a whole lot more than zero, the amount that many prisoners are paid: in some states, prisoners do not earn wages but are rather credited with time off their sentence. Some states even charge prisoners room and board, an amount that handily cancels out what they earn through work. In general, prison wages range from $0.90 to $4.50. Not bad, you think? Maybe not, if that were their hourly pay. It's not. It's how much they earn in a day.
If you had asked me a year ago what prisoners make, I would have answered with that ubiquitous reminder of prison labor: license plates. I didn't yet know that prisoners actually make many things, including Victoria's Secret lingerie
, canoes and baseball caps. Or that prisoners take hotel reservations, work in slaughterhouses, make food for school lunches and manufacture body armor. I didn't know that prisoners even used to make Ikea products. Just think about the cocktail chatter: you can tell your friends that you once let a felon touch your bra.
We like to criticize China for its use of forced labor; much was made last year of a note from a prisoner was discovered in a Halloween toy. The sad fact is that that note could have just as easily come from a prisoner right here at home. Just as corporations profit off of prisons themselves through prison privatization and mass incarceration, so too do too many profit from what is in essence indentured servitude. And they have a sizable force at their disposal, well over 1 million able-bodied men and women at last count.
Prison labor has been controversial in the United States ever since its inception here in the 19th century. Done right and it can provide prisoners with new skills and a meaningful way to pass the time. Done wrong - and, unfortunately, it most often is done wrong - and prison labor is exploitative, disruptive and distortive. It steals jobs from free workers saddled with much higher minimum wages. After all, why employ a worker at $7.35 per hour when you can get one for 10 cents? To guard against this very result prison labor for the private sector was once prohibited. Not any more. To put the icing on the cake, the government now even offers generous tax incentives to corporations who agree to use prison labor.
Of course there will always be problems with prison labor. Setting aside moral and economic considerations, quality comes first to mind. Even using the most enlightened management tools, it can be hard to properly motivate an incarcerated workforce. Given that, I was surprised to learn that prison-made goods actually have a sizable following. While you will not yet find prison garb on the runways of Paris and New York, I feel I can spot a trend when I see one.
If you're passing through Denver, Colorado and in the mood for something with that good-ol' haute-couture prison-house cache, stop by Prison Blues, a store that only sells products made by prisoners: everything from jeans to jackets to shoes. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, they don't yet carry Victoria's Secret. But you'll still be the envy of your friends. I like their witty slogan: Made on the Inside to Wear on the Outside
. And guess what? They can also claim to sell one of the few products left that is "made in America by Americans for Americans."