How prison labor contributes to the U.S. economy : The Indicator from Planet Money Incarcerated Americans make goods for American companies, and get paid next to nothing for their labor.
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The Uncounted Workforce

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The Uncounted Workforce

The Uncounted Workforce

The Uncounted Workforce

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MEGAN JELINGER/AFP via Getty Images
Guard towers look over the prison courtyard at Marion Correctional Institution on April 27, 2020. (Photo by MEGAN JELINGER/AFP via Getty Images)
MEGAN JELINGER/AFP via Getty Images

Prison labor has been a part of the U.S. economy since at least the late 19th century. Today it's a multi-billion dollar industry. Incarcerated people do everything from building office furniture and making military equipment, to staffing call centers and doing 3D modeling.

Companies like Walmart, AT&T, Whole Foods and Victoria's Secret have all relied on the labor of incarcerated people. And right now there are people in prisons all over the country working for little to no money making hand sanitizer and face masks to help fight COVID-19.

This industry is not well understood. Incarcerated workers are not included in official employment statistics and there's not a ton or economic research done on this topic, so it can be difficult to know just how substantial this sector of our economy actually is.

Today on the show, we bring you one person's story of working behind bars, and we look at what it can tell us about how America's prison labor system functions.

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