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.
NPR logo

The Uncounted Workforce

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/884989263/884990814" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Uncounted Workforce

The Uncounted Workforce

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/884989263/884990814" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

DARIUS RAFIEYAN, HOST:

This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Darius Rafieyan.

CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:

And I'm Cardiff Garcia. Prison labor has been a part of the U.S. economy since at least the late 19th century. And today it's a multi-billion-dollar industry with incarcerated people doing everything from building office furniture and making military equipment to staffing call centers and doing 3D modeling.

RAFIEYAN: Companies like Walmart, AT&T, Whole Foods, 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.

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

RAFIEYAN: So 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.

DOMINIQUE MORGAN: I had never worked a job. I had never clocked in. I had no adult experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAFIEYAN: Dominique Morgan is a musician, author and activist from Omaha, Neb. Growing up, they had a pretty tumultuous relationship with their family.

MORGAN: I was homeless from the age of about 17 to 18, and I grew up in - kind of in group homes and having some issues there and got into a really abusive relationship and was on the streets and engaging in what we call survival crimes, like stealing cars to sleep in, writing checks for food and clothes. And I - after a summer of engaging in this behavior, I had accumulated nearly 30 felony charges.

GARCIA: Dominique ended up pleading guilty to three counts of theft and forgery, and they were sentenced to eight to 16 years. And it was at the Omaha Correctional Center that they were hired for their first job working in the prison kitchens.

MORGAN: My day would start at 4 a.m. I would go into the kitchen. I would make the breakfast for 1,200 men. I would work lunch. I would work dinner. And I'd make $2.25 a day.

GARCIA: A day.

MORGAN: A day.

RAFIEYAN: That's $2.25 for more than 12 hours of work. After taxes, Dominique says they would take home about $54 a month, and most of that money went towards paying for things like phone calls, which could cost upwards of $5 per call or items from the canteen, like a bag of Doritos, which might be $5. Dominique says they might spend an entire day's pay on one stick of deodorant.

GARCIA: And that's the case with many incarcerated people whose wages tend to get eaten up by paying for simple services - services that are often provided by private for-profit companies who split the revenue with the prison itself. In addition to the low pay, Dominique says the work was grueling, and there was little attention paid to the well-being of the workforce.

MORGAN: I was diagnosed with HIV right when I got into the prison, so I would have days where I physically did not have the energy to stand and work in the kitchen for 12 hours. But I had to work. You don't get days off. You don't get to have sick days. And if I didn't go to work, it was a rule violation.

GARCIA: This highlights another problem with prison labor in the U.S. Even though, in a lot of cases, it is technically voluntary, there can be serious consequences for people who refuse to work or who advocate for better working conditions because a lot of prisoners use working as a way of having their sentences reduced. And so if they can't work, that can't happen. And so they have to serve a longer period of time than they otherwise would have.

RAFIEYAN: And on top of that, refusing to work can also land you in solitary confinement for weeks or even months. One formerly incarcerated person I spoke to said that those who refused to work would be placed in a housing unit known as the jungle, where drug use and violence were rampant, as a form of punishment.

GARCIA: And in addition to doing the work of maintaining and operating the prison, itself incarcerated people are often contracted to work for outside agencies or even private companies.

MORGAN: They do everything from building the furniture in any state office to doing the laundry for the university. There's actually a incarcerated person in Nebraska who works at the governor's mansion - literally cleans the governor's mansion.

RAFIEYAN: Dominique eventually got a job working for a company called Oriental Trading.

MORGAN: If you've ever been to, like, an office party, the tablecloth came from Oriental Trading Company. So we were doing everything from, like, cutting plastic for tablecloths to packaging. And I think at that time, I was making, like, 37 cents an hour.

RAFIEYAN: Dominique says the wage they were receiving was actually much higher than that but that most of it was taken by the prison to cover room and board and other expenses.

GARCIA: Which sounds incredibly bizarre, right? - I mean, charging room and board while you're in prison.

RAFIEYAN: It's actually fairly common for prisons to charge working inmates for their own incarceration. Prison administrators say it's a way to defray the costs of incarceration. Critics say it's a way for prisons to profit off the labor of incarcerated people. Oriental Trading says it doesn't know how much incarcerated workers were being paid. The company paid a set fee for each job to the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, which has sole discretion in setting wages.

GARCIA: It is hard to know exactly how big the prison labor industry is. There hasn't been a full nationwide census of prisons since 2005. But back then, it was estimated that there were nearly 1.5 million incarcerated people working, and that included 600,000 people in the manufacturing sector. At the time, that was more than 4% of all manufacturing jobs in the country. Today there is no central repository of information on prison labor, which means that it's just sort of left up to individual prison systems and state legislatures to decide how they count and regulate prison labor.

RAFIEYAN: For federal prisons, we have UNICOR, which is the name for the state-owned corporation that contracts incarcerated workers out to private companies. According to UNICOR'S most recent annual report, it employs more than 17,000 incarcerated workers doing everything from heavy manufacturing to computer-aided design. And it brings in more than $500 million of revenue annually.

GARCIA: Dominique worries that allowing prisons to do business directly with the private sector like this can end up creating these kind of perverse incentives that lead to more incarceration.

MORGAN: If you need to have at least 100 people inside your prison for that contract to be successful, how much work are you going to do to make sure that you keep enough inmates there to keep their contract going so you meet your yearly budget?

RAFIEYAN: Dominique was eventually released from prison after being behind bars for nearly 10 years. And after that decade of grueling labor, all they had to show for it was about $300. Initially, Dominique went to Oriental Trading hoping to get their old job back.

MORGAN: I went and applied there, and they did not hire felons in the community.

RAFIEYAN: Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. So you were working for this company...

MORGAN: Mmm hmm.

RAFIEYAN: ...Making their tablecloths for 37 cents an hour. And then when you came to get a job with them, they'd say you were unqualified...

MORGAN: Mmm hmm.

RAFIEYAN: ...To do the job you'd already been doing?

MORGAN: Mmm hmm. Yeah.

RAFIEYAN: Oriental Trading says its hiring decisions are based on a variety of factors and that a felony conviction would not necessarily be a determining factor. Luckily, Dominique was able to use their food service experience to get jobs in restaurants, which allowed them to pay their way through college. Today they are the executive director of Black and Pink, an organization that supports LGBTQ people impacted by mass incarceration. And while there are those that argue that prison is meant as a punishment, Dominique thinks that being locked up is punishment enough and that every incarcerated person should be entitled to a fair wage, basic worker protections and that all prison labor should be voluntary.

MORGAN: We say as a society in the United States that incarceration is meant for rehabilitation. And so for me, the sentence encompasses that. What we do not do is send people to slave labor, and that's what this is. And people are still humans, and people still deserve respect whether they're inside or not. And we have to decide as a society, are we saying that we want people to be better when they're released? Are we saying that we just want to get revenge and punish people?

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

RAFIEYAN: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Camille Petersen and fact-checked by Brittany Cronin. Our editor is Paddy Hirsch, and THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.