Allegra Kirkland | AlterNet | October 22, 2014
Imagine getting a job washing dishes, in a windowless room fogged by the steam of a 200-degree dishwasher. You are required to show up for your eight-hour shift every day, whether or not you are sick, and your supervisor won’t take any action if you injure yourself on the job or have to work overtime. Your compensation for this grueling, dehumanizing work? $2 a day.
If this sounds like some hellish turn-of-the-century sweatshop, it is close. But this is today’s reality for hundreds of thousands of American prisoners, who work backbreaking full-time jobs for shockingly low pay. Half of the 1.6 million Americans currently serving time do this kind of “institutional maintenance,” and the median wage they receive is between 20 and 31 cents an hour. Some states, like Texas and Georgia, offer no compensation at all.
In a fascinating investigation for the American Prospect, Beth Schwartzapfel takes us inside the dark world of penal labor, asking a question that has dogged the industry since the days of roadside chain gangs: why can’t we agree that prisoners have labor rights?
At prisons across the United States, men and women build office furniture, clean cellblocks, make industrial sinks for school cafeterias, work as telemarketers, sew the uniforms worn by their guards and fellow inmates, and complete dozens of other mindless, routine tasks that keep the giant engine of the carceral state running. Though part of the pretense for prison labor is that it helps inmates save money and earn skills that will ease their transition upon release, these terribly paid, manual labor jobs provide little practical assistance to inmates returning home. Instead, they are more akin to a modern-day version of slavery: unprotected, physically demanding and economically exploitative.