It’s a movie cliche — a men in white-and-black striped pajamas, with chains around their ankles, breaking rocks in a quarry under armed guard. The media have suggested that prison labor is the natural state of the world — a way to make the punishment for wrongdoing a little more unpleasant, and a way to make criminals sweat off whatever sinister restlessness drove them to crime, Bloomberg reports. The reality is that prison labor is just a way that governments try to recoup some of the cost of incarceration, by farming out prisoners as captive labor. That might help governments’ bottom line a little bit, but it creates devastating competition for low-wage workers.
Of incarcerated Americans, about a million and a half are in prison. That number surged in the 1980s and hasn’t fallen much from its peak in the mid-2000s. The enormous prison population represents a vast pool of ultra-cheap labor. The Prison Policy Initiative found that the average wage of a prison worker is 93 cents an hour, and the lowest reported wage was 16 cents. Compare that to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Today’s inmates don’t break rocks; over the years, they have packaged coffee for Starbucks Corp. and wrapped software for Microsoft Corp. They manufacture furniture, schools supplies and food products; make dental products, train animals, work in call centers and even pick cotton. All of these activities put prisoners in direct competition with blue-collar workers.