Prison Reform: Why We Should Reconsider Paying Prisoners 23 Cents An Hour


In recent years, prisons have come under fire for a handful of issues, and these controversies that shroud the penitentiary system are unlikely to go away. The United States holds the greatest total number of prisoners, as well as the most per capita, as compared to any other country in world. The federal government seems not to have a problem with these numbers, because it simply employs its inmates.

UNICOR, a government-run organization employing nearly 14,000 federal inmates, in its mission statement claims,

“It is the mission of Federal Prison Industries, Inc. (FPI) to employ and provide job skills training to the greatest practicable number of inmates confined within the Federal Bureau of Prisons; contribute to the safety and security of our Nation's federal correctional facilities by keeping inmates constructively occupied; provide market-quality products and services; operate in a self-sustaining manner; and minimize FPI's impact on private business and labor.”

Private industry takes issue with UNICOR because, in an industry such as manufacturing, they cannot compete. Private companies are forced to pay their employees the federal minimum wage ($7.25) while competing with a prisoner’s wage, which can be as low as 23 cents. UNICOR also does not have to follow federal workplace regulations, pay state taxes, or provide vacation days.

The labor that federal inmates provide is generally in the production of goods consumed by federal agencies as well as the Department of Defense. This policy of employing inmates is obviously saving the federal government money, although, it comes at the expense of jobs that could be done by non-imprisoned low skilled workers. The law that permits this labor reads,

“Federal Prison Industries shall determine in what manner and to what extent industrial operations shall be carried on in Federal penal and correctional institutions for the production of commodities for consumption in such institutions or for sale to the departments or agencies of the United States, but not for sale to the public in competition with private enterprise. (18 USC § 4122)”

Obviously, the most controversial part of the law, and probably most concerning to the government is the last clause regarding the prohibition of competition with private enterprise. Legal problems regarding this law are not imminent mainly because the law states that the competition must not arise from the commodity produced. This leaves out the issue of labor unless interpreted in a broader context.

Recently, the actions of UNICOR have come under scrutiny and Congress has introduced legislation attempting to roll back some of the organization's influence. The bill aims at providing small businesses with 23% of all government contracted jobs, a figure that was previously set by Congress, although not attained in 2011.

The arguments on both sides of this issue are nearly predetermined. Those who support less government are automatically going to argue the abolition of federal inmate work for the sake of the private industry. In opposition, others will argue that the federal government sits on a huge source of cheap labor that should be exploited due to the burden that a prisoner already places on the taxpayer. 

Both arguments are viable and worth discussing, although the healthier argument to have regarding this issue is over the size of our prison population. The prison culture that has developed in the United States should be changed. Many of the inmates who are allowed to participate in these programs are non-violent offenders with minor drug violations. Not every prisoner in this system should be granted his freedom, but it is worth giving a good, hard look at those that do not deserve to be there. More focus should be given to releasing these prisoners within certain restrictions and providing programs obligating them to work in these industries free from incarceration while feeding into the tax base rather than living off of it. As a country with a serious prison problem, we should begin to look at the issue in a more practical manner.