HOUSTON, Texas. A recent motion by inmates across the country has garnered media attention. According to Vox, prisoners across the country plan to go on strike, and in some cases, go on hunger strikes between August 21 and September 9. Prisoners are going on strike to protest what many consider to be exploitatively low pay. Vox reports that prisoners in California were paid only $1 an hour plus $2 a day to fight the state’s wildfires, in some instances.
Why is it possible for prisoners to be paid such low wages? An exception to the 13th Amendment abolishes slavery except in the case of punishment for a crime. This means that prisoners can be asked to work for low wages and even for no wages at all. Under the law prisons can also avoid being held to the same standards of other employers. Unfortunately, this creates a system where private and public prisons can readily exploit this cheap and free labor. Critics claim that the system is our modern form of slavery.
According to the National Review, the average prisoner’s wage is 93 cents an hour. The National Review notes that some prisoners make as little as 16 cents an hour. There are two different types of jobs available to inmates. Prisoners can work for the prison (the government) in tasks essential to running the prison. In this case, no profit is made, unless you consider cutting the costs of running the prison as a profit. Under the Prison Industry Enhancement program, private companies can contract prison workers for the lower wages. In this case, companies stand to benefit from prisoners’ low wages.
Companies must show that their use of prison labor won’t affect the local economy and deny non-prison workers jobs, but there remain many critics of this system. Some say it hurts the general community, beyond the prisoners, by driving prevailing wages down. After all, if companies can use prison workers for pennies on the hour, why would they hire civilians when they have to pay them minimum wage and in many cases, benefits?
According to Vox, prisoners are also calling for greater awareness of the role prison labor plays in the general economy. Starbucks and Victoria’s Secret, reportedly use prison labor. Proponents of prison labor programs claim that they prepare prisoners for work life outside of jail. And research seems to back this up. That said, many critics of the programs claim that they should be classified like legal employment and grant prisoners similar benefits to employment outside of jail.
Should prisoners be paid less than the minimum wage? Supporters of low wages claim that it is costly to imprison a person and that prisoners’ low wages reflect these costs. Still, prisoners and their advocates feel that the system exploits these vulnerable workers.
The topic is controversial and there remains great room for debate. Moore & Associates are employment lawyers in Houston, Texas who closely watch for cases where workers may deserve better wages, back pay, equal pay, or situations where worker’s rights may have been violated. If you believe your rights have been violated, contact Moore & Associates today to learn more about how we may be able to help you.
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