Since the start of the COVID-19 Pandemic, prison manufacturing has increased in many states across the nation. This is due to the country’s heavy reliance on inmates to produce necessary safety materials to make up for supply shortages. Starting in the spring of 2020, inmates in Missouri prisons have created about 3,000 face masks a day, over 300,000 toilet paper rolls a week, over 5,000 protective gowns, and about 18,000 4-oz bottles of hand sanitizer (MDOC). Great Meadow Correctional Facility in Comstock, New York, has announced plans to have inmates produce almost 100,000 gallons of hand sanitizer per week (Gov NY). These current events shed light on the often-overlooked issue of prison labor, a modern institution of slavery.
We can’t discuss prison labor without discussing the U.S. 13th amendment. The 13th amendment states that slavery and involuntary servitude are still used as punishment for crime (constitution center). This means that prisoners are forced to do manual labor as punishment. Today, many correctional facilities claim that manual labor is necessary for rehabilitation, but no studies have proved that manual labor helps reform prisoners. According to talkpoverty.org, inmates are not included in the Fair Labor Standards Act, meaning that prisoners do not have to be paid minimum wage. This allows prison industries to easily take advantage of cheap and free labor. Prisoners working same-prison jobs can earn about $3.45 per hour, which has decreased from the 2001 average of $4.73. In South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Texas, inmates are forced to work non-industry jobs for free (Prison Policy Initiative).
For too long, the prison labor system has been allowed to exploit inmates often for profit. Suppose the government and private companies have to rely so heavily on incarcerated workers to manufacture their products. In that case, prisoners should at least be given fairer pay, safer working conditions, and a say in how they choose to work. Most importantly, the labor in prisons should serve to prepare inmates for life after incarceration, not just as an excuse for cheap and easy production.