Prison labor in the U.S. falls into four main categories. The first and largest category comprises work that supports the operations and maintenance of prisons, with jobs such as cleaning, preparing and serving food, delivering commissary, and other prison upkeep and operations duties. It is estimated that the vast majority of the 1.4 million people incarcerated in federal and state prisons, as well as some people in jails, including immigration jails, work in this manner.
The second category of prison labor constitutes state-run "correctional industries." These include about 67,000 people across the U.S. who produce goods and services, mostly for state government agencies. The federal government imposes certain limitations on the usage and marketing of these products in interstate and international commerce.
The third category includes 5,000 workers in programs certified by the federal Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP). This program allows state agencies and certified companies to sell "prison-made" goods and services across state lines and to foreign countries, subject to government regulation.
A fourth category includes several thousands more people to work for private companies in agriculture and service jobs that are not regulated by PIECP. Goods and services in this category can only be sold within the state in which they are produced.
These four types of prison labor programs operate at both the state and federal level, governed by varying rules and regulations. The following sections provide a brief overview of state "correctional" industries, the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP) and its regulatory agency, the National Correctional Industries Association (NCIA), and the Federal Prison Industries (FPI)/UNICOR.
State Prison Labor Programs
State "correctional" industries are government-run prison labor programs, managed through state departments of "corrections," that sell goods and services produced by the people they incarcerate. Most are allowed to sell prison-made products or services only to government agencies and certain non-profit organizations, such as universities and religious institutions. However, at least 22 states prison labor programs "allow prisoners to produce goods for private companies," according to NorthStar.
As of 2021, 49 states—Alaska being the one exception—operate prison labor "correctional" industries of some kind. The size and scope of these programs varies by state. California's Prison Industry Authority (CALPIA) operates one of the largest state correctional industries in the country. As of 2021, CALPIA manages over 100 manufacturing and service operations in 35 California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) prisons and employs just under 7,000 people. In addition to manufacturing sellable goods, approximately 1,600 incarcerated individuals in California work as firefighters, many of them for as little as a few dollars per day.
PIECP and the NCIA
The Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP) exempts certified "correctional" industries from federal restrictions on selling prison-made goods and services in interstate commerce. All departments of "corrections" and "juvenile justice" agencies authorized to operate prison labor programs are eligible to apply for certification. As of 2021, 37 state and four county-level PIE-certified "correctional" industries operate in the U.S.
PIECP also allows private sector companies to establish joint ventures with state and federal prison labor programs. As of 2021, at least 175 companies have partnered with PIE-certified prison labor programs. Participating companies employ incarcerated workers in "realistic work environments" and are mandated to pay "prevailing wages," provide workers' compensation and social security benefits, and ensure that "inmate participation is voluntary." However, PIECP participants routinely violate these requirements by circumventing prevailing wage regulations.
Oversight of PIECP is conducted by the National Correctional Industries Association (NCIA), a private trade organization that is led and sponsored by prison industry officials and the companies that partner with PIECP programs. This appears to create a conflict of interest, as PIECP is effectively in charge of monitoring and regulating itself.
Federal Prison Industries (FPI)/UNICOR
The U.S. federal government manages its own prison labor program: Federal Prison Industries (FPI). Since 1977, FPI has operated under the trade name UNICOR, a wholly-owned corporation within the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).
UNICOR employs incarcerated workers in the federal prison system and "remain[s] self-sufficient" through the sale of prison-made goods and services. As of 2020, UNICOR operated 63 factories and three farms located at 52 U.S. prisons and employed 16,478 people. The corporation reported $363.2 million in net sales in 2020 of its more than 80 prison-made products and services.
UNICOR primarily sells to federal agencies, certain non-profit organizations, and state agencies for use in prisons and emergency response. According to a federal mandate, a number of government agencies are required to purchase their products from UNICOR. In 2020, UNICOR's largest customer was the Department of Defense, which accounted for 55% of its revenue, followed by the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, which accounted for 19% and 15%, respectively.
According to UNICOR's website, the prison labor program has established an "alliance with a group of [private] companies" and corporations—namely, manufacturing companies that produce things like office furniture, air filtration systems, and prescription glasses.
Prison Labor Conditions
While some may view prison labor as an opportunity for incarcerated individuals to gain skills, earn money, and contribute to their communities, others argue that, whether voluntary or forced, it is inherently exploitative.
Forced vs. Voluntary Labor
Prison labor is legal and, in many cases, voluntary. Voluntary prison labor programs often include work in specialized trades, such as carpentry and culinary arts, and community service projects. In some cases, however, individuals held in prisons and immigration jails are forced to perform labor under the treat of punishment. Refusal to comply with work assignments, participation in work strikes, or failure to report to work is punishable by solitary confinement, criminal prosecution, or the loss of privileges, including commissary, "good time" earnings, and visitation.
Allegations of forced labor have repeatedly been made against private prison operators CoreCivic and GEO Group. Between 2017 and 2019, at least six lawsuits were filed against CoreCivic, alleging that the company forced detained immigrants to work in its jails, in violation of the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), which prohibits forced labor. In two of these cases,—Gonzalez v. CoreCivic and Barrientos v. CoreCivic—the courts ruled that the anti-trafficking law applies to private immigration jails. In 2017, two lawsuits alleging violations of state labor laws and the TVPA were also filed against GEO Group for forcing detained immigrants to participate in "voluntary work programs" for only $1 per day.
Some prisons' labor programs have been likened to "modern-day slavery." For example, Louisiana State Penitentiary,—also known as Angola, the name of the former plantation on which it sits—has come under increased scrutiny for operating an overtly racialized prison labor agribusiness. At Angola, incarcerated workers are required to perform field labor, such as harvesting soybeans and corn, often under the patrol of armed guards on horseback. In 2018, a group of workers at Angola's prison farm organized a work stoppage and demanded that prison labor programs across the country "be investigated for antebellum criminality, involuntary servitude and slavery."
Whether performing forced or voluntary labor, incarcerated workers typically earn less than $1 per hour. Facility and maintenance workers, whose wages range from approximately 5 to 75 cents per hour, are paid the least. In five states,—Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, and Texas—these workers are not paid at all. State correctional industry workers are paid between 5 cents and $5.15 per hour; in at least three states, they are paid nothing. Since PIE program requirements mandate that incarcerated employees receive local prevailing wages, PIECP workers are paid slightly more. In immigration jails, such as those owned and operated by CoreCivic and GEO Group, detained immigrants are paid only $1 per day, regardless of the number of hours they work.
Incarcerated workers who are paid for their labor are usually allowed to keep only a small portion of their wages. Often, the majority of workers' wages are sent to prison commissary accounts, mandatory savings accounts, or the prison system for "room and board," victims' restitution, court fees, and legally obligated financial support for workers' families. For PIECP workers, deductions cannot exceed 80% of their gross wages. However, the remaining 20% can still be directed to expense and savings accounts, or to legal fees.
Incarcerated workers are denied even the most basic workplace protections and benefits. While all private sector and government employees are entitled to minimum wage, overtime pay, working-condition protections, and other benefits, incarcerated workers are not.
Courts have ruled that the relationship between incarcerated and detained individuals and the "custodial setting[s]" in which they labor is not primarily economic in nature; thus, they are not considered "employees" in the traditional or legal sense and therefore are not protected by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the Equal Pay Act, the National Labor Relations Act, or the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Incarcerated workers are routinely subjected to dangerous working conditions. For example, people incarcerated in New York have been tasked with removing asbestos, lead paint, mold, bird feces, and other hazardous materials from the prisons in which they are held. Incarcerated workers in California have been found to be "at serious risk of work-related injuries."
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, prison factory and kitchen workers were still required to report to their work assignments, despite a lack of proper safety guidelines. California prison industries alone have been cited by OSHA at least five times since 2020 for exposing unwitting workers to COVID-19.