Americans have felt the pain of inflation over the past year. According to the most recent release from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, consumer prices were up 7.7% in October compared to the same time in 2021. One frequently overlooked group has particularly struggled under the weight of growing inflation: the incarcerated population.
The New York Times recently published a guest essay by Patrick Irving, a maximum security prisoner in a facility just south of Boise, Idaho, who writes that prices at the commissary, an internal store where inmates can buy a limited range of personal items, in Irving’s facility rose by 8.5% in April 2022. Similar price increases have been reported in other prisons across the country. These price increases are particularly harmful to prisoners, who earn little to nothing for their labor.
According to a report released by the American Civil Liberties Union this year, over 65% of the more than 1.2 million people incarcerated in state and federal prisons work while incarcerated. Among those who are paid, wages typically range between $0.14 and $0.63 per hour. These wages may be subject to further reductions in pay for various legal financial obligations, including paying fines, fees, child support payments, and restitution. Most work assignments in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas are unpaid.
The issue of prison labor made headlines recently as five states considered ballot initiatives related to slavery in November. The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution abolished slavery, “except as punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”
The ballot initiatives sought to eliminate similar language in the Tennessee, Alabama, Oregon, Vermont, and Louisiana state constitutions. All the initiatives passed except for the one in Louisiana, where the wording of the proposed amendment generated confusion among voters and prompted some of the initiative’s proponents to turn against the measure.
Sixteen states, including Louisiana, still have language that permits slavery or involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime. It is unlikely that repealing this language will meaningfully impact prison labor practices, but it may open the door to potential legal challenges related to the wages earned by prisoners.
Notably, the intent of these initiatives is not to prohibit prisoners from working. In Tennessee, for example, the language made an important distinction, reading, “Slavery and involuntary servitude are forever prohibited. Nothing in this section shall prohibit an inmate from working when the inmate has been duly convicted of a crime.”
As Tennessee State Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis), who helped get the initiative on the ballot, told the Associated Press, “We understand that those who are incarcerated cannot be forced to work without pay, but we should not create a situation where they won’t be able to work at all.”
Criminal offenders frequently struggle to maintain stable, full-time employment before and after incarceration. There is evidence that prisoners who find employment post-release are less likely to return to prison in the future. Other research has found that individuals with stable, full-time employment are less likely to engage in criminal activity.
Programs that provide prisoners with work experience while incarcerated are intended to improve post-release employment and recidivism outcomes. According to a recent Brookings Institute report, evidence that these programs reduce recidivism is mixed—although a number of studies have found favorable effects on post-release employment and prison misconduct.
A recent study concluded that the amount of time a prisoner engages in employment programs may be an important factor. Prisoners who spent a greater share of their time employed while incarcerated had lower rates of recidivism, higher rates of post-release employment, and fewer instances of institutional misconduct.
Given that prison work programs can be beneficial, low wages are the primary source of contention. Commissary prices may rise with inflation, but the wages paid to prisoners are rarely increased. But there are efforts being made across many states to change that.
Lawmakers in New York and Illinois are seeking to raise prisoner wages even as prison minimum wage legislation has failed in Arizona, Maryland, Mississippi, Nevada, Texas, and Virginia since 2019. Meanwhile, a proposed amendment to the California State Constitution failed to gain legislative support after the California Department of Finance estimated it would cost $1.5 billion in 2022 to pay the state’s $15 minimum wage to 65,000 incarcerated Californians.
While it is likely not feasible to pay prisoners market wages, current wages are unreasonably low and should, at the very least, be adjusted to account for inflation. Moreover, states should end the practice of deducting legal financial obligations from prisoners’ wages. In particular, “pay to stay” fees––which charge prisoners for room and board and healthcare costs––should be eliminated entirely. Of the 1.2 million people incarcerated in the United States, roughly 85% will leave prison and return to their communities.
The current state of corrections in most states today does little to ensure that returned citizens are equipped with the skills and financial resources to successfully reintegrate into society. The experience of working and earning regular wages while incarcerated can be effective for easing the transition to life “on the outside.” In this light, prison work programs should be viewed as a tool for reducing recidivism rather than sources of revenue.