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Prison labor offers additional economic gain, but are the wages fair?

Video and article by Andrew Creech

North Carolina General Statute 148-26 establishes mandatory work requirements for all able-bodied inmates.

“Work assignments and employment shall be for the public benefit to reduce the cost of maintaining the inmate population while enabling inmates to acquire or retain skills and work habits needed to secure honest employment after their release,” the statute states.

Various positions are available to make use of inmates’ skill sets.

Wages for jobs within the prison, such as food service, plumber or groundskeeper, range from 12 cents to 40 cents per hour. This amounts to about $250 to $825 a year.

By using prison labor for these tasks, tax payer costs are lower and the inmates are paid  varying amounts.

Federal inmates have the opportunity to work with Federal Prison Industries (FPI), also called UNICOR. UNICOR wages range from $0.23 to a maximum of $1.15 per hour.

UNICOR manufactures products for government agencies, including military uniforms and weapon systems. Citizens and private businesses cannot order from UNICOR, but they do compete with them for bids, often losing out because they must abide by minimum wage laws, pay a fair wage and worry about taxes and employee benefits.

While the payment from a company for labor is usually at least minimum wage, inmates do not actually see that money. Up to 80 percent of the paycheck is used for taxes and room and board in the prison. A minimum of five percent must be paid to compensate victims of crime. In the end, the inmate only gets 20 percent of minimum wage, with 10 percent of that generally put in a savings account to be given to them upon release.

Private corporations, such as Starbucks, WalMart, Microsoft and Nintendo, among others, have also used prison labor. While the companies generally pay higher than UNICOR, it still is not nearly as high as the federal minimum wage.

Proponents of prison labor argue that the program keeps industries from looking to China as a labor source, while also keeping illegal immigrants from doing the work that should be reserved for citizens of the United States. It also allows inmates to relieve some of the taxpayer burden.