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The problem with prison labor

Art by Geena San Diego

Last year, the average daily inmate population in LA County was about 13,000 people. Although this is considerably improved compared to 2019’s average of 17,000, it's still a lot. A big question for the people in charge of these jails is: What to do with the prisoners while they serve their time? After sleeping and breakfast, lunch, and dinner, what do they do? The answer to this question is labor.

What kind of labor?

Prisoners’ work ranges from keeping the prison facilities clean and fighting wildfires to working for private companies. And yes, while technically they are paid, it’s a horrific 8-37 cents an hour, even while the minimum wage in California is $15.50 per hour.

Why does this matter?

Of course, these are criminals. So, many people have resigned to the statement that they deserve it, and sure, maybe they do. However, these are also people, most of whom don't have a lifetime sentence, and most of them have not murdered anyone or hurt anyone. Because of redlining (something that a loan or insurance company does where they highlight specific areas where they decide the people living wouldn’t be able to repay a loan), most people in prisons are people of color, who may have turned to crime because of institutional racism.

In addition to that, despite redlining, the fact that prisoners get very little pay makes it a lot more difficult for these people to get back on their feet when they get out, feeding them into the cycle of being stuck in poor places and houses and turning to crime and then ending up back in prison and again being paid poor wages.

Why is this a thing in the first place? Why aren't prisoners just paid at least minimum wage?

Using prisoners for labor means companies can create their products while spending practically nothing on their workers. Hiring people who are not incarcerated would mean companies would be obligated to pay them at least minimum wage.

This also deprives many people of jobs, increasing poverty in the country. It makes it harder for more people to get by and makes them more susceptible to turn to crime, which puts more people in prisons doing work for companies who should be hiring them beforehand.

What can you do to help?

Stop buying from companies that use prison labor, and say something about it. Vote to either stop prison labor and give prisoners something else to do or raise wages for prisoners working. Even if you vote to raise wages for prisoners, this will provide companies with a harder choice between using prisoners or other non-incarcerated people for labor. Or, if they continue to use prisoners, then these people will have an easier time when they get out of jail, and that will hopefully help to break the cycle.

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