The wages of prison labor: why the system needs to be improved

By Shayma Musa

Prison laborers work for anywhere from 12 to 40 cents an hour.

In early September, the largest prison strike in American history began. A month later, the strike continues to be overlooked by mainstream media.

The strike began on Sept. 9. It was purposely scheduled to coincide with the 45th anniversary of the Attica Prison uprising that occurred on Sept. 9, 1971, following the death of prison inmates who were protesting for political rights. Now, the prisoners are demanding better working conditions, higher wages and an end to their exploitation that they are calling the “new slavery.” On Sept. 9, at 29 different institutions, a total of 24,000 inmates walked out on their jobs.

This is how Melvin Ray, one of the most influential leaders of the national prison strike, opens the e-book prisoners wrote to detail their plight and struggles to gain rights in a prison system:

“Freedom…Make no mistake about it…That’s the business of Free Alabama Movement. At some point, we [prisoners] have got to get to the point where not only have we had enough of the inhumane and unconstitutional living conditions that we are confined in, but we also have got to get to the point where we are ready, willing, and able to do something about it. This ‘something’ is a statewide shutdown on Free Labor in the form of a Non-Violent and Peaceful Protest for Civil and Human Rights.”

The inmates are not exaggerating. According to The Marshall Project, a non- profit journalism organization that documents criminal justice cases, nearly half of 1.5 million prison inmates have jobs. They work for as little as 12 to 40 cents an hour with little to no workplace protections.

The strike calls attention to hotly debated, humanitarian questions about the current state of the American prison system and raises new questions about the rights of inmates. Should people who have broken the law be entitled to the same pay as civilians?

I say, why not?

Inmates are just as human as the rest of us. They have needs that require fulfillment and families that need their support. When we lock them up in a system focused on punitive justice — without offering them the dignity of fair pay, or any access to rehabilitative services such as adequate job training and programs to get them reintegrated back into society — we first turn a blind eye to the plight of our fellow human. And second, we create cycles that end up costing the American public big dollars.

According to The Washington Post, 51 percent of U.S. inmates are in on charges relating to drug offenses, offenses that, without going into the technicalities, are largely minor. In one study conducted in the state of Delaware, eight in 10 prisoners ended up right back in jail upon being released. Recidivism numbers are just as high throughout the nation. High recidivism numbers mean higher taxes for taxpayers.

Pennsylvania itself spends $3.18 billion a year on its prison system, according to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Educations report on State and Local Expenditures on Corrections and Education. That means that the state spends more on the construction of prisons and the housing of inmates than it pays for running the public college system. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Pennsylvania spent only $1.45 billion on public college education.

We pay billions of dollars every year for the care of prisoners, shouldn’t those billions be used to do some good, instead of maintaining a system where more than half of prisoners return back to prison?

Shayma Musa is a staff writer for The Spectator.