NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Use Of Prison Labor Increases

March 23, 2000

The debate over using prisoners for labor has intensified as the practice becomes more widespread.

  • More than 80,000 inmates now hold traditional jobs, working for companies or governments.
  • The federal program that employs 21,000 inmates is up 14 percent in the last two years.
  • The federal program has $600 million in annual sales and is seeking to expand.

Prison labor was common in U.S. prisons in the 19th century, but was banned after hundreds died on the job because of hazardous conditions. In 1934 work programs were reinstated in federal prisons, but remained small until tough drug and sentencing laws of the 1980s swelled the prison population. As the unemployment rate fell, businesses began looking to the prison population as a source for labor.

  • California has the most inmates in work programs with 6,832.
  • Texas is next with 6,733, followed by New Jersey (3,488), Ohio (3,100) and Florida (2,629).
  • In terms of the share of its prison population in work programs, Maine easily tops the list with 77.6 percent.

Supporters of inmate employment include law renforcement officials who believe the programs help rehabilitate prisoners and business groups who want inexpensive labor. Prisoners want to work, they say, and point to research showing inmates who work are less likely to commit crimes when released. Opponents view inmate labor as a potential human rights abuse and a threat to workers outside prison because they take away jobs and hold down wages.

Source: David Leonhardt, "As Prison Labor Grows, So Does the Debate," New York Times, March 19, 2000.


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