As protests on racial inequality and calls for defunding police overlap with news of COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons, conversations around dismantling prisons and prison labour have made their way into the mainstream. While activists, scholars and other experts have been advocating in this arena for decades, this primer is intended for those who are just becoming aware of the inhumane realities of prison labour.
What does ‘prison labour’ really mean?
Inmate labour is standard in federal, provincial and state prisons across the US and Canada. Incarcerated people work up to 12 hours a day performing all manner of jobs, including agricultural work, maintenance, manufacturing, customer service and childcare (sometimes babies born inside stay in prison nurseries, rather than being immediately separated from their birth parent).
Private companies across both countries contract prison labour because they can legally pay workers in prison a fraction of what they pay workers on the outside. This economic incentive is why prison labour continues to exist.
How do inmates get jobs?
In US federal prisons, job assignments are based on an assessment of skills and experience. There are pay grades and preferred jobs, and work assignments can also be affected by an assessment of someone’s likelihood to commit, or be a victim of, sexual assault or violence — in which case, in accordance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act, they might be given a work assignment where there is more supervision.
In Canada, higher grade (and therefore higher paying) jobs are “awarded” to inmates based on their record in previous work assignments, if they have had disciplinary offenses, or a history of tardiness.
What kind of work do people do in prison?
People in prison work in roles that serve either the prison (such as cleaning, maintenance, or kitchen work), or for private companies, doing anything from making furniture, answering customer service calls, or farm work. In some cases, even the public sector employs inmates.
When did the US and Canada start using prison labour?
In the US, the foundation was set for today’s prison industrial complex with a “slavery clause” included in the 13th amendment to the constitution, passed in 1865, which abolished slavery in the US, “except as a punishment for crime”. Taking advantage of this exception, laws were passed to criminalize Black communities across the country. These policies ensured that free labour “lost” with the abolishment of slavery was replaced through America’s prisons.
In Canada, prison labour was established as a federal economic resource even before confederation in 1865. One of the oldest prisons, the Kingston Penitentiary, was actually built by inmates in 1835. Their labour was also sold to local private enterprises as early as the 1830s—decades before confederation in 1867
Today, there are still policies in place across the United States and Canada that are designed to increase incarceration rates, and grow inmate populations. The racist legacy of this system remains as prevalent as ever, with Black, Indigenous and racialized people significantly overrepresented in incarcerated populations in both Canada and the US.
How many people are working in prisons?
It is difficult to know exactly how many incarcerated workers there are in Canada and the US today because they are not included in standard labour surveys. But we do know that of the 2 million people in the US, and 40,000 people in Canada in federal, state and provincial prisons, almost all of those inmates are expected to fulfill a work assignment, unless exempted for health reasons or otherwise. Notably, the majority of incarcerated people in Canada are awaiting trial and therefore legally innocent, but are still subject to prison work requirements.
Can prisoners just not work if they don’t want to?
For the most part, no. US Bureau of Prisons policy lists write-ups, loss of privileges, or prison transfers as consequences for refusing to work or missing a work assignment. Additionally, working inmates do not have access to benefits like sick leave. This is because in both Canada and the US, inmates are not considered “employees”.
In speaking with Dominique Morgan, Director of prison abolitionist organization Black & Pink National, she shared that as a formerly incarcerated person herself, she was not able to call in sick to work while in prison when feeling unwell. If she failed to show up to her job in the kitchen, she said she could face solitary confinement as a punishment.
But what’s wrong with prisoners working? Don’t they have a lot of free time?
“The punishment is going to prison,” says Morgan, “Period. That’s how they're paying for their charge. And that could be sitting in a cell all day doing nothing. The punishment is, you're not free.”
Prison labour has been justified as a rehabilitative tool, a way for inmates to avoid idleness, to develop skills, or as a way for incarcerated people to earn money for food or supplies they may need or want in prison. However, reports show that prison work programs fail to prepare people with job training, and fail to prevent formerly incarcerated people from reoffending. According to Morgan, the low pay, lack of benefits and poor labour standards also fail to equip incarcerated individuals with the right expectations for what working life should be, even after release.
Plus, wages earned by inmates don't go far in prison commissaries. In the US, federally incarcerated inmates make between $0.23 to $1.15 per hour. In Canada, there is a maximum daily rate of $6.90. In five US states, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Texas, inmates work for nothing. In both countries, these meagre wages are garnished further by deductions, and what remains goes to paying for the most basic necessities, including phone calls and hygiene products. As an example, a 2015 commissary price list for New York’s Metropolitan Correctional Center lists a box of tampons for $7.65. That’s 33 hours of work before deductions.
Where people do gain practical work experience, stigmas against hiring felons present another barrier. Morgan said that The Oriental Trading Company, who she worked for while incarcerated in Nebraska, would not hire her to do the same job she did in prison, upon release.
Who profits from prison labour?
As an example of how the need for prison labour is reinforced, 3M lobbied US officials for a law requiring license plates be replaced every five years, ensuring a continued need for the raw materials they manufacture, which are then made into license plates by incarcerated workers. This resulted in $10M annual revenue for the state.
So how do we stop forced prison labour, and is anyone working on it?
There are advocacy organizations, lawyers and politicians in both countries working to abolish prisons, improve prison labour conditions, and end the prison industrial complex.
Just last year, a coalition of prison justice and abolition activists from across Canada released “Choosing Real Safety,” a declaration to divest from prison and policing systems. As with working on the outside, collective action is another possible pathway to accessing rights for working people. In Canada, incarcerated workers have actually unionized in the past.
In June of 2021, US Congresswoman Nikema Williams and Senator Jeff Merkley introduced the “Abolition Amendment,” a piece of legislation that would remove the “slavery clause” in the 13th amendment. While this historic move would address the loophole allowing forced prison labour on the federal level, it needs to be carried through at the State level, says Morgan.
“My hope is that if we're going to be bold enough at a federal level to make this decision for the country, much like the way that same sex marriage passed, that there are no caveats for people to manipulate or twist it. We abolish it.”
If you’re interested in supporting advocacy for the abolishment of prisons and prison labour, look into these organizations.
Black and Pink National - blackandpink.org
Worth Rises - worthrises.org
Prison Policy Initiative - prisonpolicy.org
The Sentencing Project - sentencingproject.org/about-us
Centre for Community Alternatives - communityalternatives.org
Saskatchewan Manitoba Alberta Abolition Coalition - smaac.org
BC Prison Justice Network - prisonjusticenetwork.org
Toronto Prisoners Rights Project - torontoprisonersrightsproject.org
Abolitionist Futures - abolitionistfutures.com
Abolition Coalition - noprisons.ca/abolition-coalition