About half of the 1.6 million people serving time in U.S. prisons have full-time jobs. Despite decades of talk about giving prisoners the skills and resources they need to build a life after prison, the vast majority of these workers, almost 700,000, still do “institutional maintenance” work, reports the American Prospect. They mop cellblock floors, prepare and serve food in the dining hall, mow lawns, file papers in the warden's office, and launder millions of tons of uniforms and bed linens. Compensation varies from state to state and facility to facility, but the median wage is state and federal prisons is 20 and 31 cents an hour, respectively. Because inmate workers are not “employees” under the law, they have no protections: no disability or worker's compensation in the event of injury, no Social Security withholdings, sick time, or overtime.
In three states—Texas, Georgia, and Arkansas—they work for free. In Texas, where inmates are required to work under threat of punishment, most do maintenance tasks, but some are assigned to “field force” jobs designed to be demeaning. “It wouldn't be an ideal job,” says Jason Clark, Texas Department of Criminal Justice public information officer. “Someone may have had disciplinary issues, so they end up in the field force, doing various things including clearing fence lines. They're out under armed-guard supervision, using their labor.” If that scenario sounds familiar, it should. “Thousands of prisoners toil in the hot sun every day and make nothing,” says Judith Greene of the nonprofit group Justice Strategies. “Prison guards on horseback, ten-gallon hats, prisoners in their uniforms. It looks like what it is: plantation labor all over again.”