Prison Labor Helps Keep Wages Low on the Outside

“Stay out of it” is pretty much the standard distillation of analysis regarding the prison industrial complex, at least according to most public school curricula. 

Not bad advice, certainly.

But in the wake of the great informational tsunami that’s flooded the shores of the West these last few months, and in keeping with our commitment to participate in a capitalist word as consciously and ethically as we can, we can’t help but dig a little deeper into two key facts:

  1. Nearly a quarter of the world’s incarcerated population resides in the United States.
  1. Private companies can lease prisoners for labor and pay them less than minimum wage (although in some places they are required to pay it), and prisoners themselves receive on average $0.33 to $1.75 per hour.

But today, we’re not talking about whether or not that’s the way the system should be used from a moral standpoint. (The case itself is multifaceted and complex, with some advocating for beneficial prison labor as a form of rehabilitation and job skills training, and others equating it with slavery as allowed by the 13th amendment.)

Today, we’re talking about how the prison industrial complex affects the wages of average workers.

You see, prison labor can range from working in the prison cafeteria, to stamping license plates, sewing seams for state employee uniforms, creating fast fashion garments, farming food for grocery stores, tending cattle, fire-fighting, telemarketing, and even building circuit boards for SIlicon Valley giants. 

You might think that this doesn’t affect you, as you’re likely not reading this from prison, and may not imagine yourself going to prison.

But what affects one of us affects all of us. Here’s how…

The Minimum Wage Argument

We all know that minimum wage was designed to supply one earner with the power to support a family – mortgage payment, food, healthcare, clothing, etc. 

The federal minimum wage at the end of 2019 was $7.25 per hour. If you work 40 hours a week and make a paycheck every two weeks, you’re looking at $580 every two weeks – before taxes. At the end of 2019, median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the U.S. was $1,078. Working one full-time minimum wage job wouldn’t have been enough to live on. 

Many people feel that this is unethical. 

But the reason it hasn’t changed is that corporate America has its workers in a stronghold… 

And since prison labor is even cheaper than voluntary labor, no amount of striking, lobbying, or hoping to see humanity reflected in policy has had an effect. 

We hear often from global monolithic corporations that increasing the minimum wage would eat into their profits and their ability to reinvest in themselves, reducing their power to employ on the grand scale that they currently do.

The great, heavy list of corporations involved in outsourcing their labor to prisons suggests a common unwillingness to provide payment commensurate with value. 

The American Legislative Council

ALEC, as it’s commonly known, is a nonprofit organization made up of representatives from private sector companies as well as state legislators. 

It’s been around since the ‘70s, and while its primary function was to draft legislation reflecting the interests of its members to be passed through governments, it has been credited with expanding the prison labor system. 

But the practices of those corporate interests are often detrimental to the environment on a disastrous scale, harmful to employees, and fund anti-regulatory political candidates who allow them to continue their operations unburdened by ethical considerations.

A side effect of having over a million prisoners working for wages impossible to compete with elsewhere is the stagnation of minimum wage on the outside.

Professor and student of prison labor history, Heather Thompson from the University of Michigan, breaks it down like this:

“It doesn’t even matter if jobs go somewhere else; the ability to send them inside prisons dampens wages [and] bring[s] a whole lot of low-wage jobs out of the mainstream economy.” She continues, “nobody on the inside or outside is making money. That’s why it’s a working-class problem.”

Folks, it’s a tough world. Most of our lives are made possible by unbelievably intricate systems we can’t begin to fully appreciate. 

But we’re all responsible citizens – or at least, we’re all trying to be.

Prison labor stymies efforts to raise the minimum wage to meet rising costs of living – after all, if labor can get done one way or another (and often at a much lower cost than someone with federal protections would require), companies have no incentive to change.

Part of the system that keeps our wages low is making sure we think we’re already getting the absolute best deal available. But we know we’re not.

Our wallets were hit hard this year from Covid-19 and global shutdowns of businesses.

If we want to make our voices heard and stand in support of retail workers, textile workers, call center reps – our fellow people – you know what to do.

Vote with your dollar. Pay attention to how the brands you love and use make their products.

Prison labor helps keep wages down through the use of underpaid incarcerated workers. 

How can we let them know we find that practice injurious to the success of our economy as a whole, including non-executive employees?

It’s simple – take your dollars somewhere else.

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