Low wages and high recidivism? Prison labor doesn’t add up.

This month is National Wildfire Awareness Month, and for good reason. As the weather heats up across the country, park rangers will start watching for faraway pillars of smoke, indicating a potentially devastating forest fire. Climate change shows no signs of slowing down, nor do wildfires. They will continue to wreak havoc on our country’s most natural, beautiful places. Thankfully, we’ve created a number of groups and task forces to combat these blazes. A lot of them, however, use prison labor.

Last year, over 600 fires raged across California. Thousands of incarcerated men and women fought the blazes under terrible conditions and insufficient pay. Such labor is an abuse of our incarceration system and indicates a larger, more serious problem.

Our country incarcerates more people than any other. If we were to round up all of American’s prisoners, the population would rank among our largest cities. As of 2019, the total prison population was around 2.19 million prisoners. Our decades-long war on drugs has created the most overly eager criminal justice system in the world, hell-bent on locking up people of color at disproportionate rates.

Obviously, our institutions can’t let such a vast group of people sit there without performing a service.

So many of these prisoners perform labor for subpar wages. Their responsibilities range from transcribing textbooks to manufacturing military equipment. An admittedly non-comprehensive list of companies that use prison labor can be found here. The range of industries in which prison labor is prominent is fairly surprising.

In federal prisons, these workers can earn between 12 cents and 40 cents per hour for their work.

Besides being drastically lower than the federal minimum wage, this pay often comes with stipulations. A significant chunk of that money automatically goes towards criminal justice system fees. Saving this already measly salary is almost impossible. That, along with underfunded and neglected post-release support systems, foster recidivism. So not only do private interests exploit racist criminal justice tendencies, but prison labor is a self-sustaining institution. The low wages help sustain the labor pool.

The exploitation of prisoners for cheap, sometimes dangerous labor must end. Even those fighting wildfires only earn $2.90 a day for their work. States like California have dangled expungement as an incentive to sign up for firefighting programs. Until recent, the same states have banned ex-offenders from serving as firefighters upon release.

Prison labor is a system full of contradictions and harmful institutions. Not only is exploiting our deeply flawed criminal justice system immoral, but the labor itself is as well. Prisoners deserve real wages that can help them once they serve their time. Aside from abolishing prison labor in general, mandating a higher base pay will reduce repeat offenders and help rehabilitate prisoners.

Instead of taking advantage of mostly people of color, let’s create a system that works for incarcerated people, not abuses them. If we make time in prison valuable, then it will pay dividends down the line within our criminal justice system.

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