The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery except as a punishment for a crime. Yet, prison labor is an unknown but pervasive aspect of our history post-slavery. Starting after the Civil War and continuing through the early 1940s, incarcerated individuals were “leased out” to plantation owners and manufacturers as cheap labor. This leasing system was later replaced with what is commonly known as chain gangs. Many states profited from this dehumanizing practice and California is no exception.
The use of prison labor in the United States has helped expand our prison systems and many parts of our state. In 1851, only a year after receiving statehood, California began using prison labor. San Quentin and Folsom Prisons were built on the backs of prison laborers. Folsom Prison opened a manufacturing factory in the 1930s and many incarcerated workers helped build California’s infrastructure, including roads and early highways.
Today, California relies heavily on prison labor but pays incarcerated workers unfair and unjust wages. In California, over 42,000 people in prison work full-time, earning $0.08 an hour to at most $3.90 per day.
Over 3,000 incarcerated people work as firefighters and risk their lives for the safety and protection of our communities while earning $1 per hour. While this is 1/27th of the wage of other fire crew members, they are four times more likely to experience object-related injuries and eight times more likely to experience smoke inhalation-related injuries. Another 7,000 people work for the California Industrial Prison Authority (CALPIA) who manufactures and sells items made by incarcerated workers such as road signs, clothing, cleaning products, and office furniture that is used in nearly every room in the State Capitol. The state pays market rate for these items, yet the workers manufacturing them earn only a fraction of the market wage.
Across California, thousands of incarcerated people work as electricians, carpentry, cooks, orderlies, fire crew members, braille transcribers, silk screen printers, and many other integral work positions essential to the operations of a state prison. Yet, they are paid at most $3.90 per day.
Returning members of society already face copious barriers and ever evolving challenges upon reentry, including, but not limited to, housing insecurity, homelessness, replete debt, and difficulty finding and keeping employment.
Such low wage earnings, combined with drastic deductions to pay off other criminal justice debt, leave people exiting prison without financial stability, therefore drastically increasing the likelihood of one’s inability to pay child support, restitution, or any other debt associated to the criminal justice system. Estimates indicate formerly incarcerated people owe 60 percent of their income to forms of criminal justice debt. Only 55 percent of formerly incarcerated individuals reported any earnings during the first year of release. The ability to save and accumulate wealth while in prison would better position incarcerated people during the first year post-release.
Inequitably low wages for incarcerated workers serve to benefit the CALPIA and associated programs. With below-market wages for the workers and the market rate sale price of the items, the inflated profits are funneled back into the program.
As the participation in such programs is shown to reduce recidivism, these individuals may even be saving the state money in future costs of incarceration. One of CALPIA’s program has a recidivism rate of 7.13% as compared to the state average of 45% Yet the state fails to fairly compensate them for their work. While the state does not provide any general fund dollars towards CALPIA, the reduction in recidivism saves general fund money—another way in which the deeply underpaid work of these individuals is subsidizing the state.
In the last few years, California has passed significant criminal justice reform measures, moving away from flawed and unjust historic practices. It is time to add the underpayment of incarcerated workers to this list of issues in need of equitable reform.
SCR 69 recognizes the need to examine the pay scale of incarcerated workers. Paying incarcerated workers a fair and just wage will not only promote individual and communal economic stability but also personal dignity. With increased wages, incarcerated workers would earn a wage that reflects their hard work, allowing them to contribute monetary means to their families, drastically increase the amount of money paid towards restitution, and allow for an accumulation of savings to assist them with the transition back into their communities.
- Sen. Bradford @SteveBradford
- Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC)
- Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC) / All of Us or None (AOUON),
- State Building & Construction Trades Council of California (SBCTCC), Western Center on Law and Poverty (WCLP),
- Young Women’s Freedom Center.
- UC Berkeley Policy Advocacy Clinic