Exploiting Prison Workers for Cheap Sheets
Research by advocates documents harsh conditions and unfair practices for incarcerated workers throughout the US prison system.
MARCH 10, 2023
On March 3, 2023. in Crestline, Calif., a crew of inmate firefighters walk back to their vehicle after shoveling and clearing snow after a series of winter storms in the San Bernardino Mountains in Southern California. (Mario Tama / Getty Images)
It took Johnny Perez over four years of making hundreds of bedsheets every day at a factory to reach the top pay tier: about 32 cents an hour, nearly double his starting wage. He was one of the highest-paid workers at Coxsackie Correctional Facility—a textile manufacturer run by the New York State prison system.
When he was released years later, Perez discovered that the sheets he had stitched for pennies an hour back in the late 2000s were being sold on the market for hundreds of times more. The bedding was part of a huge inventory of furniture, uniforms, and other products sold under the brand Corcraft, which markets prison-made goods to state agencies, schools, and other public institutions. A dozen Corcraft sheets currently goes for $73.
Perez, who was in his 20s when he worked in the upstate factory, thought about the market value of his daily production quota of about 360 sheets: “You do the math, and you’re like, I made these people millions of dollars,” he said. “Not only me. I was one of many who reached that quota. And when you peel back those layers, it really becomes insidious. You’re like, ‘Wow, well, wait a minute—this is really wrong.’”
Corcraft calls Perez’s job a form of rehabilitation. According to the company’s website: “We employ incarcerated individuals to produce goods while preparing them for release by teaching them work skills, work ethic, and responsibility.”
The notion that laboring for next-to-no pay is an educational, even therapeutic, experience for the incarcerated workers, is rooted in a concept enshrined in the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery except “as punishment for a crime.”
Perez, who now works as the director of the US prisons program at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, said that although his job was technically voluntary, it was not really his choice.
“What makes it forced…is that if you quit, you’re punished,” he told me. “What makes it forced is that you can’t take a day off when you don’t want [to work]. What makes it forced is that if somebody dies, you’re not going to get no bereavement time, you’re going to get no sick time.… In prison, there’s no calling in [sick] for Covid, you’re going into solitary or you’re going to get a behavior report, etc. So, that’s what makes it forced, even though people still have to qualify to be able to get the job.”
According to the ACLU’s recent report on prison labor in the United States, “Captive Labor,” almost all adult prisons—nearly 99 percent of public prisons and 90 percent of private ones—run labor programs, employing more than 790,000 of the 1.2 million incarcerated individuals in the country. That figure excludes people working in jails, immigrant detention centers, and juvenile detention facilities.
A 2016 survey of people in state prison published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that nearly six in 10 people in state prisons had work assignments, and about 70 percent were working involuntarily. Most of the jobs were for maintaining the facility, like food preparation, groundskeeping, and staffing the prison library, with a small number employed in skilled trades like plumbing. Just 6 percent were part of formal “prison industries,” meaning contracted-services programs that produce goods and services for state agencies or private companies, including office furniture, police uniforms, and, during the pandemic, face masks. A small percentage of incarcerated workers are contracted out to corporations. Only about six in 10 of the respondents reported earning wages.
According to Jennifer Turner, coauthor of the ACLU report, while some prison jobs are supposedly voluntary, “many people are, in fact, required to work, and even if they’re unwilling or unable to do their work, will be threatened and punished with solitary confinement or effective extension of their period of incarceration if they are unable to work.” Turner noted that the ACLU’s research reveals that incarcerated workers are frequently forced to work under threat of discipline even if they are “very much unable to work because of a disability or a serious injury.”
But there is a grassroots movement underway to abolish the last vestiges of slavery codified into state and federal law. Last year, voters in Alabama, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont joined a handful of other states in approving ballot initiativesfor constitutional amendments to prohibit forced labor without exception—a move toward ending forced prison labor. Advocates for decarceration are driving a nationwide campaign to abolish the prison-labor exception in the 13th Amendment, including federal legislation proposing a constitutional amendment.
Some of the public disapproval of prison labor may be fueled by bad publicity. Whole Foods, for example, faced protests in 2015 when consumers found that some of the store’s cheese and fish offerings came from companies that employed incarcerated workers in Colorado. The company eventually pledged to stop selling products made by prison labor.
Noam Perry, an economic-activism associate with the American Friends Service Committee who has tracked prison labor connected to the private sector, said the vast majority of the connections between corporations and the prison labor system is hidden from public purview, thanks to the opacity and lack of regulation of supply chains. He estimates that “all major retailers in the US have prison labor in their supply chains. They just don’t know it, and they don’t know it because they choose not to know it.”
Forcing the incarcerated to work goes back to the 19th century penal workhouse, and is rooted in religious notions of self-discipline and redemption. Following the abolition of slavery, the use of labor as penal discipline became highly racialized under the 13th Amendment’s exemption for prison labor. In the postbellum South, as more Black people became ensnared in the legal system through racist laws known as the Black Codes, the convict-leasing system enabled prison authorities to contract incarcerated workers to private enterprises such as plantations or railways, subjecting many to extreme degradation and abuse. By the early 20th century, prisons were deploying the brutal chain-gang system to supply manual labor for public works projects like road building.
Today, prison labor is modernized and less visible. Although prison industry jobs make up a relatively small portion of the incarcerated workforce today, they are deeply integrated into many supply chains. State-owned prison industries operate in 49 states and employed more than 51,000 individuals as of 2021. A few thousand incarcerated individuals work directly for private companies under the Prison Industries Enhancement Certification Program, which was passed in 1979 as part of a bipartisan push to make the incarcerated population more productive and “work ready.”
The work of Federal Prison Industries, which operates under the name UNICOR, ranges from manufacturing glasses to staffing call centers to recycling electronics for government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and private companies. Despite contributing to net sales of $404 million in fiscal year 2021, according to the ACLU’s research, hourly earnings for manufacturing and service workers have ranged from $0.23 to $1.15. (UNICOR did not comment in time for publication.)
Prison labor is also feeding many of our care and educational institutions. Prisons in California, Georgia, Montana, and other states supply workers to private processing plants that make food for state hospitals, veteran and long-term care homes, and public schools and universities. The contractors may pay workers minimum wage, but after numerous deductions for prison-related debts, like court-ordered restitution, they may only be left with just 20 cents for every dollar they earn on paper.
One of the Southwest’s largest egg producers, Hickman’s Family Farms, employs incarcerated workers to raise chickens and produce eggs. The contract provides about 15 percent of the annual revenue of Arizona Correctional Industries. In 2020, Hickman’s paid incarcerated laborers between $4.25 and $5.25 per hour—less than half of Arizona’s minimum wage—which was further reduced to $1.39 or less after ACI skimmed off “mandatory deductions,” including room and board expenses. Hickman’s also faced nine lawsuitsin 2019 and 2020, brought by former incarcerated workers who suffered occupational injuries, including allegedly being maimed by machinery and car accidents. In an investigation by The Arizona Republic, workers said they lacked clean water and accidentally stabbed themselves with antibiotic syringes. (Hickman’s did not return a request for comment.)
Rights groups say lawmakers could improve prison labor conditions by including incarcerated workers under the Fair Labor Standards Act, occupational safety and health laws, anti-discrimination measures, and protections for collective-bargaining rights. Senator Corey Booker (D-N.J.) has proposed a bill to extend worker health and safety protections to state and local correctional facilities.
Turner, the ACLU researcher, said that incarcerated workers not only often had no say in their work assignments, but when removed from a job or shifted to a lower-paying position, they generally “had just simply no right whatsoever to contest those arbitrary changes and often discriminatory assignments.”
Prison labor for the private sector is theoretically subject to some regulation: A 1935 law known as the Ashurst-Sumners Actforbids “knowingly transport[ing] in interstate commerce…any goods, wares, or merchandise manufactured, produced, or mined, wholly or in part by convicts or prisoners.” But the law exempts agricultural products, items that don’t cross state lines, and services and products used by the government and nonprofit agencies.
Reynolds Taylor, a staff attorney with Corporate Accountability Lab and coauthor of a report on corporate brands and prison labor, said that with so many exemptions, “if you’re a private company and you’d like to benefit from some incarcerated labor, then there’s just a lot of different ways that you can legally do it, to the extent that the prohibition becomes often somewhat meaningless.” As one of several organizations that criticizes forced prison labor as a violation of international labor conventions, the group stressed that “private entities must never be authorized to use prison labor in their supply chains,” paid or unpaid, because of the inherently coercive setting.
Britt White, who once worked a fast-food job while imprisoned in Alabama and is now an organizing fellow at the Institute to End Mass Incarceration, told me, “There’s an assumption that people who are incarcerated can only work menial or mediocre labor jobs—a fast-food job or a job that other people in the community may not want to work.” When prison work is deliberately demeaning, she added, “we have normalized them being mistreated by their superiors. We have conditioned them to believe that they can’t be productive members of society.”
Though prison work programs are often touted as preparation for regular work after release, rights groups argue that prison work assignments are typically monotonous, offer few opportunities for advancement, and have little educational or rehabilitative value. Moreover, they say menial, low-paid jobs are a much more prevalent as programmed activity for the incarcerated compared to education. According to the 2016 BJS survey, while nearly 60 percent of respondents reported having had a work assignment, only about 27 percent reported participation in education or job training.
Kerry Richmond, a professor of criminal justice and criminology at Lycoming College, said that while she sees some merit in requiring incarcerated people to engage in work programming, if “you’re requiring people to work, you’re not paying them, and then you’re going to discipline them if they don’t go to work—all of that is counterproductive,” and an excessively punitive labor mandate might actually “further their criminal trajectory by kind of causing them to be angry and outraged.”
Despite the emphasis on pushing incarcerated people into jobs in prison, joblessness often awaits them after they are freed. Of the people released from prison in 2010, nearly two-thirds were jobless four years later, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics—a reflection of employment discrimination against the formerly incarcerated and the prison system’s failure to provide meaningful preparation for post-release employment.
Reform advocates say that while work should not be mandatory in prison, incarcerated individuals should have voluntary work opportunities that provide skills and educational credentials to help them build careers after release. To address labor market discrimination, lawmakers could also curb employers’ use of criminal background checks and eliminate occupational licensing restrictions that bar people with past convictions from certain professions, like real estate appraisal or massage therapy.
But the most important step is to dismantle the legal scaffolding that upholds forced prison labor and prevents court challenges. Bianca Tylek, executive director of the rights organization Worth Rises, which leads the End the Exception campaign, argued that because the 13th Amendment is the constitutional cornerstone of forced prison labor, “we must first clean up our Constitution and make it very clear that slavery is unethical and unlawful in every single circumstance, in order for us to then continue the fight to protect people who are incarcerated from exploitation of their labor and violence related to their labor.”