Labor in Prison

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Despite the fact that slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865, modern-day prison labor represents comparable problems faced by African-Americans during the slavery era. In reality, modern-day jails have forced inmates to operate, a condition that we might call modern-day slavery in those institutions. Unfortunately, those who partake in such extreme prison acts receive no money and would have a little meaningful effect on their life after they are released. Apparently, these prisoners make a substantial contribution to the economy; thus, it is important to investigate the position of private organizations that profit greatly from prison labor. According to Erik and Andrew (2014), such private organizations treat prisoners as slaves, engaging them in hard labor and subjecting them to unusual punishments which in the long run disempowers them and diminishes their potential when they re-enter the society after their release. It is ironical that the privatized prison industry makes billions of dollars annually from prison labors yet they give them little compensation, which without any doubts creates a humanitarian crisis. This paper discusses the exploitative nature of the level of slavery of “Prison Labor” and the appropriate roles they ought to play as they handle the Prisoners.

Keywords: Forced labor, Prison labor, Private organizations, Modern-day-slavery

Prison Labors


With five percent of the world population found in prisons, there is need to analyze ‘Prison labors’ and their relationship with privatized prison industry. Without any doubts, the prison labor helps in the production of goods and services for every economy which of course increases the GDP. What we must know is that most of these prisoners consider working to acquire the necessities, support their families, and also pay off fines or debts. Sadly enough, the modern-day prisons have exposed prisoners to forced work, seeing them waking up as early as 3 am and reporting to their work assignments at 6 am. The prison-support jobs that these prisoners handle include cooking, cleaning, lawn maintenance, and involvement in factory-farm activities such as digging, mining, and quarrying.

One new trend that has found its way into the modern-day prisons is the issue of framing out of inmates to provide their labor to private enterprises. The organizations that purchase the prison labor do so with the intention of getting a discount on the cost of free work. We can term such a situation a ‘human-trafficked labor’ which is an increasing social vice in the current society. Engaging prisoners in forced labor is not a bad idea. But the problem that arises that the minimum wage does not apply in their situation. In fact, their hourly wage rate ranges $0.04 - $0.06, which is by far too low to even buy a chocolate bar.

That is why critics of prison labor have continued to point out the issue of unfairness regarding the prisoner’s work and their wages, exposing them to the moral hazards created by profiting from punishment. Other parties that have condemned the prison labor system are the Human rights organizations and other social-political ones because of the cruel exploitation of the prisoners who are mainly of African-Americans and Hispanic communities. Erik & Andrew, 2014 states that the minorities and the poor people of color. It is even more devastating to learn that such prisoners do not get their right to vote and also lacks a politically elected represented to listen to their prison demands.

In fact, we cannot be wrong if we generalize that the government or the state has failed to overcome the exploitations that the private organizations put against the prison labors. As a result, we can conclude that the private corporations have found a pot of gold in the labor form. The employer does not worry about absenteeism or lateness of the employees since the prison facility takes care of the situation. All they do in case a prisoner fails to turn up for the work is deny them paramount privileges and deducting their payouts. Cederstrom & Fleming’s (2012) describes such a condition “dead man working,” relating prisoners to the robot or dead people who cannot demand any rights, hence they will not question the process, and they will offer surplus labor.

According to Ness (2016), the global working class opts to outsource cheap labor from other countries. Since the United States has the highest incarcerated population, it has not been left behind in this social vice. The US has a majority of the imprisoned population being people of color, particularly the African-Americans and the Hispanic community. What has led to the increment in this condition is the loophole that exists in the 13th Amendment despite the end of slavery in 1865. That gap allows neo-slavery through “punishment of crimes,” forcing such communities to perform mandatory unpaid hard labor in correctional facilities.

Besides that, the labor market has discriminated against the blacks in America for long. We can note that the prisons exploit the same communities. Privatization of prisons is indeed a significant problem with far-reaching consequences. Private organizations have politicized prison labor, using such a worker for their selfish gain.

But according to LeBron (2012), high levels of discipline in prison environments could lead to higher productivity levels. However, prison labor has experienced in sourcing in the United States. Private organizations view prison labor as a source of reduced costs of operations, easiness to control when compared to labor outside of prison. As such, corporations think that by employing prison labor in sourcing, they can avoid providing health insurance benefits or pensions. It is apparent that prison labor lacks collective bargaining unions to help them in demand for some of their primary rights in the economic environment. For one thing, such companies also fail to give prison labor's wage raises, promotions, weekend offs, sick holidays, and might fail to be concerned about working conditions and the potential harms that these workers get exposed.

LeBron (2012) further suggests that such private firm pay the prisoners low wages, and save the administrative costs to the state. In fact, various countries have come up with new regulations regarding the prison labors, allowing corporations, businesses, and companies to use inmate labor directly for manufacturing and service jobs. For instance, the state has approved a company such as McDonald’s to use the inmate labor to help in the manufacture of products or services. That brings us to the general conclusion that the Aboriginal communities and Hispanics get discriminated in several ways in the prison labor market. With that, we cannot be wrong to say that the mainstream society is abusing the minority society through the help of the government and the correctional facilities, which exploits and enslaves them, against the principle of humans’ rights.

For one thing, prison labor is exploitative. It is the poor in the community who are prone to crimes as they try to make ends meet. Brynjofsson & McAdee (2014), believes that mass incarceration is a system of social control aimed at population control of the Black and Aboriginal populations that get excluded from mainstream employment. As a result of such denials, members of such minority communities get forced to commit crimes as they try to make meet ends. Without any doubts, we can say that prisons belong the poor, minorities, and the disenfranchised people who use crime to make ends meet. It is, therefore, not a surprise to find that such groups fill the prisons, but later on, they get subjected to slavery treatment behind bars. The only way that we can protect their right is through having a politically elected representative to advocate for them or their families. Brynjofsson & McAdee, (2014) further suggests that prisoners get subjected to cruel treatment and they find it challenging to lead healthy lives once released from the prisons due to their diminished self-esteem and psychological turmoil.

The exploitative idea prison labor can be related to slavery. In Ramm’s (2017) essay on “Prison Labor, Slavery & Capitalism In Historical Perspective,” prisoners begin to hate work due to unfairness in rewards and the work done. Stephen Hartnett (2017) also cites a story of an inmate identified as Shaka who refused to participate in prison labor, equating it to slave labor. Shaka refuses to work and states that “During slavery, work was taken as a form of punishment, and became despised just like any punishment. I also refuse to be a slave.” Shaka’s comparison of contemporary American prison labor to slavery raises concerns about the meaning and the principles behind modern American prison labor programs.

Prison system has failed because instead of correcting the offenders and treating them like human beings, it uses its powers to force them into modern-day slavery. The prisons exploit the least fortunate in the society who find themselves in the confinements of these correctional facilities turned into institutions of slavery. According to Karl Marx theory of alienation and estranged labor (1992), alienated labor arises from primitive accumulation of and separation of the work from the means of production. Such terminations ensure extensive extraction of surplus value which exploits the productive labor power of the individuals dispossessed by capital. One example of alienation in the prison work that occurs in the privatized prisons includes allowing the wealthy to buy justice and never face such horrible treatment which has far-reaching effects including mental torture. In fact, those who are wealthy get simple punishments and fines which in most cases they can pay and move on with their lives. With this condition, it is apparent that the government has failed to solve the challenges of economic inequalities, equal opportunities, human rights, or even streamlining the minimum wage rates to ensure that all people in the prison labor have a good living condition.

Privatization of prisons through sourcing for cheap labor from prison system has benefited corporates engaging in such businesses. Erik & Andrew’s concept of the surplus population (2014), explains that the capitalist regains political power over the working class. The readings suggest that the capitalist requires an excess population that is cheap, obedient, and flexible. But the two scholars indicate that abuse and exploitation of racial hierarchies are essential components of control of the excess population. We can also apply Carl Cederstrom and Peter Fleming’s (2012) concept of “dead man working” which explain the notion that prison laborers get treated as if they were slave laborers. The two scholars further state that prisoners get torn from their identity by the fact that many of them get treated as slave labors, and do not question the process, readily supplying their labor.

Apparently, the prison labor crime is politicized to benefit the politicians and the cartels in prison labor system. Such private organizations maximize profits and minimize expenditures by using less skilled young workers who get paid lower wages. Such exploitation of human capital in the prison system employed by the private sector gives them unfair competitive advantages when compared to government-controlled labor in correctional facilities. One such example of outsourcing cheap labor and exploitation occurs in the telemarketing and call centers sector. Ness Immanuel (2016) suggests that these telecommunication companies have been making more than $500 million annually. Prisoners now offer customer-service calling centers where they seat in a small guarded room taking orders of items, goods, and services for government agencies or other private companies (Brophy, 2011).

According to Graeber’s (2013) papers on “bullshit jobs,” he describes the situation through showing that some forms of employment should not exist in the first place. Despite the many negative implications, at least 37 states have legalized prison labor contracting by the private companies who have begun their operations within the prison system. Having fewer guards supervising the work reduces the operating costs and maximizes the profits for the organizations.

The population of the guards gets further unevenly distributed with the issue of gender coming up. Several private organizations use female prison officers as objects of distributing sex hence creating established motives. Additionally, unlike other forms of employment where the division of labor expect all members to perform their portion of work, prisons do not require every inmate to get involved in any duty for their consumption. Moreover, the lack of gender equity stimulates a less rehabilitative work; hence, prisoners get treated inhumanly.

Frederick Winslow Tylor (1911), in his principles of scientific management, notes that the principal tool of control is to get maximum value for the employer, and the same costs for the employee. In this light, success is used in its broad view to underscore development of different branches of the organizations to their highest levels of excellence to ensure that prosperity gets achieved in a permanent status. In this perception, it would appear that the well-being of the employer and that of the employee couples to offer the principal objects of management. Such perfect harmony is practically not achievable since the two seems to conflict. That is why the scientific management has a firm conviction that the interest of the two groups are the same, hence, it is not possible to give what the employer wants, and the employee wants. The benefits of an employee are to get high wages and probably work for fewer hours, while that of an employer is to get maximum work input and pay less to maximize the profits hence making the two need incompatible. This theory better explains why the private firms employ the exploitative tactic of using a prisoner as their source of labor. Additionally, McAfee’s & Brynjolfsson (2014), support such concept when they argue that surplus population provide surplus labor which is beneficial to capitalists. In essence, the exploitation and abuse of hierarchies is an essential component of control which get achieved through privatization of labor in prisons.

For one thing, other businesses have begun benefitting from privatizations of prison-related activities. According to Sloan (2015), such associations that have received direct impact includes occupations such as doctors and lawyers. It is apparent that several doctors are beginning to consider working in prisons rather than the private practice. Sloan suggests the reason for this switch by physicians is the retirement benefits and free malpractice insurance offered by prison health care corporations, such as PHS.


Critics argue that prisoners had broken the law and should remain confined in prisons as a form of punishing them. But that does not imply that such prisoners should get exploited when it comes to paying them. In fact, the minimum wage should apply in whatever activity they get involved in conducting. Despite the fact that prison labor gives prisoners a chance to learn new skills and to have better productive lives while in prison, engaging them in private and unpaid forms of employment is enslaving them. A correctional facility should not be used to encourage modern day slavery. Thus, the state should find a way of ensuring that those who engage in prison labor get compensated and that they do not get treated inhumanely. It is also critical to address the issues surrounding prison labor and gender equity as part of improving on transparency and openness in the organization. The government should also not allow the private institution to benefit from the expenses of lives of other people as it creates a negative perception and undermines the principles of humanity.


Brophy, E. (2011). Language put to Work: Cognitive Capitalism, Call Center Labor, and Worker Inquiry. Journal of Communication Inquiry, 35(4), 410-416.

Brophy, E. (2017). Language Put to Work: The Making of the Global Call Centre Workforce. United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan UK. Doi: 10.1057/978-1-349-95244-1

Brynjolfsson, Erik, and McAfee, Andrew (2014). “Chapter 9: The Spread.” In The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies. New York: W.W. Norton.

Cederström, C., & Fleming, P. (2012). The dead man working (p. 25). Ropley: Zero.

Graeber, D. (2013, August). On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs. Strike! Magazine.

Hartnett, S. (2017). Prison Labor, Slavery & Capitalism In Historical Perspective. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Nov. 2017].

LeBron, G. (2017). Captive labor and the free market: Prisoners and production in the USA. [Online] Available at: Captive_Labour_and_the_Free_Market_Prisoners_and_Production_In_the_USA [Accessed 3 Nov. 2017].

Marx, Karl (1992). ‘Estranged Labor’ in “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844).” In Karl Marx: Early Writings, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton, 322 – 334. London: Penguin/NLR.

Ness, Immanuel (2016). “Introduction.” In Southern Insurgency: The Coming of the Global Working Class. London: Pluto Press. 1-26.

Ramm, G. (2017). “Work Don’t Hurt Me”: A Study Of Prison Labor And Prison Industries In America – The Morningside Review. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Nov. 2017].

Sloan, B. (2015). Identifying Businesses That Profit From Prison Labor. [Online] PopularResistance.Org. Available at: Identifying-businesses-that-profit-from-prison-labor/ [Accessed 4 Nov. 2017].

Taylor, Frederick Winslow (1911). Selections from The Principles of Scientific Management. Working Class. London: Pluto Press. 1-26.

October 19, 2022

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