Hundreds of thousands of American prisoners are being forced to work in “degrading conditions” that would cause a scandal in any other setting, lament the authors of a new report denouncing the “exploitation” of US prison inmates.
Posted at 7:00 am
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in a comprehensive study conducted with researchers from the University of Chicago, finds that the federal government and many states use constitutional exemptions to abuse this “captive labor force.”
13e The 1865 Amendment Prohibiting Slavery and Involuntary Serfdom provided an exception to the “punishment” of criminals, depriving them of effective legal protections.
“Most people are not particularly shocked by the idea of prisoners being forced to work. But they don’t recognize the associated conditions,” says Mariana Olaizola, co-author of the study, in an interview.
Inmates who work in federal or state prisons generally make very little money, rarely exceeding $1 an hour — even for risky jobs like those of California inmates mobilized to fight wildfires.
Based in part on a series of requests for information and a long series of interviews, the authors calculated that the average hourly wage was 13 cents an hour.
They identified seven states that simply do not pay forced labor inmates.
Low earners also have to put up with the fact that prisons withhold up to 80% of their income for various types of expenses.
Almost 70% of prison workers said they were not earning enough money to cover the cost of basic items such as toiletries, medicines or warm clothing charged by prisons.
Families facing lost income resulting from a person’s incarceration are forced to step in to support them financially, often through debt, the report said.
While earning paltry sums, inmates produce an estimated $2 billion worth of goods and services a year and provide maintenance services valued at $9 billion to the institutions they oversee.
Almost 80% of inmates who work are assigned to maintenance. Another 10% is allocated for public works such as road or park maintenance. A tiny fraction are employed by private companies that pay for the prisons.
“The financial benefits to governments are tremendous,” notes Ms.me Olaizola.
The study co-author says it is “hypocritical” to see the United States denouncing the use of forced labor abroad while benefiting from abusive practices within the American prison system.
Almost two-thirds of the inmates surveyed said they worked at the prison, which equates to about 800,000 people nationwide.
Among those who worked, as many as 75% said they would face sanctions if they refused. Solitary confinement and loss of family visitation rights are some of the reported punishments.
jobs at risk
Detainees also report being forced into risky jobs without receiving training or proper equipment.
The study authors note that many of them have faced such a scenario during the COVID-19 pandemic by being given tasks where they were likely to be exposed to the virus.
Detainees were ordered to bring hand sanitizer, masks, medical suits and face shields, which they were then banned from using for their own protection.
Excerpt from the American Civil Liberties Union study
Work programs are often justified as enabling prisoners to develop skills that facilitate their social reintegration.
“But the majority offer maintenance jobs that don’t involve any special skills, even if the prisoners would like them to be,” notes Dr.me Olaizola.
The report’s authors state that there is an urgent need to ensure that prisoners work voluntarily and are not threatened if they refuse.
They are demanding that the Constitution be revised and that prisoners have access to the same legal protections as all American workers, rather than being left vulnerable to state institutions that act as both “jailers and bosses.”