18 Surprising Products Made by Prisoners

For decades, companies looking to cut labor costs have been turning to a source of nearly unlimited cheap labor: prisons. Because many prisoners are employed by prisons themselves and others by contractors within the correctional system, it’s difficult to pin down just how many inmates actually work as labor, but it’s thought to be at least 400,000 people – and may be as many as one million. These convictsĀ have little legal recourse against injury or exploitationĀ and usually earn very low wages, from just a few cents to a few dollars per hour.

Proponents of prison labor claim that it teaches inmates manufacturing skills they can use when they’re released, that the inmates are treated well, and that it helps them save money for life after prison. They also point out that workers in certain prison industries have a much lower recidivism rate. Opponents call it slave labor, with a prison-industrial complex set up to ensure a steady flow of workers, many of whom are incarcerated for minor offenses in order to make cheap products for the wealthy. Some also claim it deprives American workers of jobs.Ā 

Here are a variety of products and services that have been provided by prison labor now and in the past. If you thought prisoners only made license plates, you’re about to be surprised. Chances are that something you own or something you regularly interact with was either made or packaged by prison labor.Ā 

Christmas Toys
Inmates at a Tennessee prison had the idea of putting their woodworking class to good use by makingĀ toys for childrenĀ in need. Handmade rocking horses, dolls, and toy cars are all being put together by prisoners, and will be handed out by a local charity.
Ikea Furniture
IkeaĀ was forced to apologize for using political prisoners in East Germany to make products for them in the ’70s and ’80s. The prisoners were reportedly paid 4% of the monthly salary of the average East German worker. Many were serving long prison terms for extremely minor offenses.
Military Equipment

First established in the 1930s, Federal Prison Industries, now known asĀ UNICOR, makes a huge amount of gear for the US military. Items made by labor working for UNICOR include jackets, uniforms, helmets, shoes, electronic equipment, guidance systems, and body armor for the US Army. They also make police equipment and human silhouette targets for firearms training – often paying inmates wages as low as 23 cents an hour. UNICOR is the governmentā€™s 39th largest contractor, with 110 factories in 79 different federal penitentiaries.

While government agencies are required to buy from UNICOR, the work isn’t always top-notch – the company stopped making helmets for a while after tens of thousands had to be recalled because of poor workmanship.

Artisanal Cheese
Western states like Colorado and California are at the forefront of a movement employing prisoners to makeartisanal foodsĀ like high-end cheese, fish, produce, and juices. Some of the products are even sold at Whole Foods.
Lingerie
In the ’90s Victoria’s Secret hired subcontractorĀ Third GenerationĀ to stitch their lingerie and leisure wear. The subcontractor then turned around and hired about three dozen South Carolina prison inmates to do the work.
McDonalds Uniforms
TheĀ fast food giantĀ has been criticized for using prison labor to make thousands of employee uniforms and to process some of its frozen products.
Books for the Blind
The American Printing House for the Blind runs programs in three dozen prisons that employ offenders to helpĀ write textbooksĀ for blind students. In Missouri, over 100 prisoners work transcribing books and sheet music into braille, and a similarĀ volunteer programĀ is in place in Georgia.
Baseball Caps
Government prison labor company UNICOR mostly makes products for federal and state customers. But they do alsoĀ make baseball capsĀ that are sold to the general public.
Canoes
Colorado oversees about 60 inmate work programs, including one at Fremont County Jail, where inmates buildĀ fiberglass-sealed canoes. Made out of scraps from the prison’s furniture shop (which builds dormitory and office furnishings), the high-end canoes sell for around $1,500.
Knick-Knacks
San Quentin State Prison in California is home to most heavily-populated death row in the United States. But it also has a pretty greatĀ gift shop,Ā selling convict-made music boxes, paperweights, clocks, money clips, drawings, paintings, and personalized greeting cards. Profits from the inmate-produced trinkets go toward buying more supplies and for the General Inmate Fund.
Blue Jeans
The Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution is home to a 47,000 square foot facility, and judging by the name, itā€™s easy to guess what gets made there. TheĀ Prison Blues Jeans FactoryĀ does indeed make jeans, but also jackets, T-shirts, and hats. Their products, which are eĀ specially popular among ranchers and farmers, are both rugged and and affordable, averaging about $40 for a pair of jeans.
Wild Horse Training
Another Colorado prison labor initiative is theĀ Wild Horses Inmate ProgramĀ (WHIP), which trains wild mustangs, prepping them for adoption. Since 1986, the program has trained over 5,000 mustangs. Other states use prisoners for animal training as well, including Maryland, Utah, Florida, and Texas.
Call Center Staffing
Numerous state and federal agencies useĀ call centersĀ staffed by low-paid prison inmates, so when you call the DMV, it could be a prisoner who answers. Some work for UNICOR, while others are contracted through individual state prisons.
Park Furniture
Floridaā€™sĀ PRIDEĀ (Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises) non-profit program trains inmates in manufacturing and woodworking. All told, the inmates make over 3,000 products, including picnic tables, park benches, apparel, and industrial equipment. They also provide cleaning services, food processing, and tire re-treading. 69% of PRIDE graduates land jobs after jail and 89% stay out of prison.
Starbucks Coffee Packages
Starbucks contractorĀ Signature Packaging SolutionsĀ uses prison labor to make and shrink-wrap coffee packages, particularly during the busy holiday season.
Circuit Boards
Numerous tech companies, including IBM, Dell, and Texas Instruments have all usedĀ prison laborĀ to make cheap, low-tech circuit boards for their products.
Patriot Missiles
According to a report fromĀ Wired, prisoners working for UNICOR were instrumental in putting together some of the parts that make up the US Patriot Missile. Critical components, including the guidance systems, were assembled by workers making around 25 cents an hour.
Car Parts
Third party Weastec CorporationĀ paid prison workers in OhioĀ about $2 an hour to make parts for various Honda models until the early ’90s, when the United Automobile Workers Union successfully pressured Honda to axe its Weastec contract.