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The critical prison reform topic of jobs has been a recurring theme of my posts.[1] The topic brings into focus populations of people released from prison each year. In 2016, state and federal prisons released about 626,000 people, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics.

What about inmates’ job opportunities while in prison? Having a job on the inside is a means of gaining self-respect, using dead time productively, and earning money for a smooth and lasting reentry into society. The problem is that inmate labor is legally compensated on a scale equal to slave labor wages: three hots and a cot[2] plus some small change. Imagine leaving confinement with no financial resources after years of incarceration. That’s the reality for men and women reentering their communities.

In California, the state gives a person leaving confinement  $200 cash to reboot his or her life. For those with no support system on the outside, the money is exhausted in a day for the purchase of food, clothing, over-the-counter medicine, and temporary housing. There is little opportunity to save money while incarcerated. Incarcerated people are slaves to the state thanks to the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which prohibits slavery—unless you’re a convict who, no matter the sentence, is indelibly stained as very low in the caste-like system of hierarchical standing.

During my two-year prison term (2003–2005), I had a job as a porter in the prison library.  The job description for a porter included mopping floors and cleaning toilets. In actuality, I worked as a librarian, recommending books, repairing battered paperbacks, and keeping the circulation of the collection flowing with checkouts and returns. I was given porter status on paper to justify my hourly pay of $0.08 per hour. A well-paying job paid $0.37 per hour.

In a 2004 study entitled “An Economic Analysis of Prison Labor in the United States,” Asatar P. Bair, discusses his research  regarding the economic scope of prison inmate labor:

This research yields the striking conclusion that the basic organization of prison labor in the U.S. today most closely resembles a form of slavery. Inmates are compelled by economic, cultural, and political forces to enter into this prison slavery, where the products of their labor are taken by others both inside and outside the prison.

The effects of prison slavery on both the inmates who are enslaved as well as on American society as a whole are also explored. We find that as the prison has been transformed over the last 150 years by social movements, legal changes, and economic forces, so too has prison slavery. We also find that these social changes have allowed slavery to continue and even to expand in American society, despite the Civil War and the abolition of slavery outside prisons.

According to this report, “a conservative estimate places the value of these [state and federal inmates’ goods and services] at $9 billion.”

Current state hourly rates for inmates are tantamount to slave labor. Here’s a partial list of regular jobs (nonindustry) from Wendy Sawyer’s 2017 Prison Reform Initiative article, “How Much Do Incarcerated People Earn in Each State?”:

Low High
Alabama 0.00 0.00
Alaska 0.30 1.25
Arizona 0.15 0.50
Arkansas 0.00 0.00
California 0.08 0.37
Colorado 0.13 0.38

To see the full list of states, click here.


Connecting Historical Dots

Let’s connect some historical dots that get us to the contemporary prison reform issue of prison slave labor. One dot leads to a national disgrace forged by the founders in Article 1 of the United States Constitution. Another dot is the exception clause written into the Thirteenth Amendment, prohibiting slavery for nonconvicts through hate-based politics. I argue that these class-based legislative actions devalued the monetary worth of work performed by the 2.2 million people currently enslaved in US jails and prisons.

Completing a term of one’s conviction reshapes a person’s identity through the lens of a devaluation of self and leaves one with questions:  Who am I? What is my value? Where do I fit in? What can I do now? Not having a job or being grossly underpaid is cruel, but not unusual, in our national prison system.

Three-Fifths of a Person—Really?

The first marker—Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 of the US Constitution—was ratified in 1788. Early in its history, the United States government evidenced its contemptuously vile dismissal of black people with an obscene formula that designated them as a percentage of a human being. Really—it’s there in the early DNA of the Constitution in the article:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. (emphasis added)

The reference to “all other persons” in Article 1 means slaves, and the stain on social rights for people of color continues today in its many pernicious forms. History shows that forced labor was common throughout the states when this passage was drafted. There doesn’t seem to be any reason other than contempt for southern slaves to conjure up the idea that they were three-fifths people (while northern slaves were considered whole persons).

A quote from the answer of a question on Quora—“What does article 1, section 2, clause 3 of the United States constitution imply?”— makes this important point to support the racist spirit behind the three-fifths absurdity.

Nowhere in this passage is any suggestion that the number of representatives should have any relationship to the number of people eligible to elect the representatives. In fact, the inverse is implied: Congressional representation was apportioned according to the labor power available in the state, not how many people the state government represented.

The Antebellum Historical Dot

The time between 1778 and the Civil War (1861–1865) was deplorable for blacks. In his memoir published in 1845, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the former slave, fervent abolitionist, penetrating orator, and advocate for change in the polarizing racial practices of this country gives a true picture of slavery.

Frederick Douglass saw slavery from a humanistic view. That view, in my opinion, accurately describes the story of the southern black slaves, post-Article 1. For example, Douglass describes a scene he experienced where slaves were sold like farm animals, and he gives a great insight to the depravity of the slaveholders and their complete disconnect from any empathy for other human beings and the condition of slaves because of color, centuries of forced hereditary slavery, and the festering raw self-degradation mirrored upon them and their families for such acts:

We were all ranked together at the valuation. Men and women, old and young, married and single, were ranked with horses, sheep, and swine. There were horses and men, cattle and women, pigs and children, all holding the same rank in the scale of being, and [they] were all subjected to the same narrow examination. Silvery-headed age[d] and sprightly youth, maids and matrons, had to undergo the same indelicate inspection. At this moment, I saw more clearly than ever the brutalizing effects of slavery upon both slave and slave holder. (emphasis added)

The Thirteenth Amendment Historical Dot

Ratified in 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment is written in clear English that concretizes the marginalization and subordination of formerly incarcerated people to this day:

Neither slavery or 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. (emphasis added)

Frederick Douglass describes how the widespread convict lease system exploited the punishment clause:

[States] claim to be too poor to maintain state convicts within prison walls. Hence the convicts are leased out to work for railway contractors, mining companies and those who farm large plantations. These companies assume charge of the convicts, work them as cheap labor and pay the states a handsome revenue for their labor. Nine-tenths of these convicts are Negroes.

Douglass goes on to note that so many blacks were behind bars because law enforcement tended to target them.


American history is exhibit A to the denigration of black people. Exhibit B is the contemporary adoption of racist policies against blacks that bleed into the criminal justice and incarceration systems and drag other races into this contemptuous class-based mix.

Inmate labor generates billions of dollars of income for states, but in return, inmates are paid slave wages that undermine their reentry by the resultant financial destitution. I advocate for paying, at a minimum, the federal minimum wage to state and federal inmates. Being paid $7.25 an hour versus $0.08 can make a huge difference in being financially ready for reentry.

Your thought and insights are always welcome.

Image courtesy of 123rf


[1] For examples, see Jobs, Jobs, Jobs: Wants and Needs, Ban the Box, and Prison Reform, Politics, and Kushner: A Curious Amalgam.

[2] The reference is to the three daily government-provided meals and a place to sleep.

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