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 convicts have little legal recourse against injury or exploitation 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.
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.