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Forced Laborers

The carceral state molds and enforces worker compliance, vulnerability, and insecurity—both within and beyond prison walls.


In the United States today, more than 2 million people are incarcerated in prisons and jails, another 4.5 million people are under supervision via probation or parole, and 70 million people have some type of criminal record. The carceral state has thus exerted its grip on nearly half of the U.S. workforce. In fact, the combined prison and jail population of the United States roughly equals the number of employees that Walmart, the world’s largest employer, employs across the globe.

Few Americans realize that about half of people incarcerated in the United States are working at any given time, and most work for a significant portion of their sentences. Given the carceral state’s massive scale and its intersections with the world of work, it is necessary to understand mass incarceration as a system of labor governance.

The aim of this essay is to lay the groundwork for such an understanding. I begin by providing an overview of the four major types of work arrangements that exist in U.S. prisons. Then, I broaden the analysis, discussing forms of carceral labor that take place outside jails and prison, but which are nonetheless structured and compelled by the carceral state. Finally, I conclude with some brief insights about the role of the carceral state in affecting labor discipline broadly, in and outside of carceral spaces.

Prison Labor in the U.S.

As I detail in Labor and Punishment: Work In and Out of Prison, there are four types of jobs in U.S. prisons (not counting work in informal or illicit economies behind bars). Common across all four types is the absence of the rights and protections that define free-world labor: no minimum wage, no overtime, no unemployment, no workers’ compensation, no social security, no occupational health and safety protections, and no right to form unions and collectively bargain.


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The first category of work is facility maintenance, also known as “regular” or “non-industry” jobs. In these roles, incarcerated people work to keep the prison running; they sustain its operations. The vast majority of incarcerated workers perform this type of labor: cooking and serving food in mess halls; cleaning dorms, bathrooms, schoolhouses, hospitals, and recreation yards; cutting lawns and shoveling snow; fixing electrical and plumbing systems; painting walls and washing windows. Because wages for this work are invariably minimal—ranging from no pay at all in many southern states to $2 per hour in Minnesota and New Jersey—this form of labor saves prison operators untold sums of money by supplanting free-world, full-wage workers.

The second category is “industry” jobs, which are positions in the government-run prison factories that were launched in the 1930s. These account for just under 5 percent of state and federal prisoner employment. People who labor in these factories produce a wide range of goods and services for sale to government agencies: office furniture and filing cabinets; road signs and license plates; uniforms, linens, and mattresses for prisons and hospitals; wooden benches and metal grills for public parks; even body armor for military and police. In Texas, Georgia, and Arkansas state prisons, incarcerated workers receive no wages for this labor. On average, state and federal prisoners earn $.33–1.41 per hour for this work (as compared to an average of $.14–.63 per hour for the facility maintenance jobs described above).

The third category of incarcerated labor is for private-sector companies that set up shop inside U.S. prisons. Such jobs employ just .3 percent of the U.S. prison population. These are the highest-paid prison jobs because private-sector companies are legally obligated to pay “prevailing wages” in order to avoid undercutting non-prison labor. However, incarcerated workers do not actually receive these “prevailing wages.” Private employers often pay only the minimum wage, not the prevailing wage, and legal loopholes allow them to pay even less. Moreover, incarcerated workers’ wages are subject to many deductions and fees, which are capped at a whopping 80 percent of gross earnings. In other words, U.S. prisons seize most of the workers’ wages in these jobs. Further, some states have mandatory savings programs that take away an additional portion of the pay. Thus, even though regulations mandate free-world compensation for private-sector jobs in prison, prison rates prevail.

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The final category is work that occurs outside of the prison, through various labor arrangements such as work-release programs, outside work crews, and work camps. While no concrete data are available, reports suggest that such jobs are more common than both public and private industry jobs, though not as common as facility maintenance jobs. This category is highly heterogeneous, including work for public works, nonprofit agencies, and private companies. In work-release programs, incarcerated people typically maintain free-world jobs—at free-world wages, though subject to prison-world deductions—and then return to the prison after work hours. In prison work crews, incarcerated workers leave the prison or jail facility during work hours to perform public works, or “community service” jobs, such as fighting fires and cleaning highways, park grounds, and abandoned lots. Such workers typically return to prison at the end of the workday, unless their labor—as in the case of wildfires—is far from the prison; in those cases, they are typically housed in prison-like facilities, such as fire camps. In one instance, incarcerated women who labored for a multimillion-dollar egg farm in Arizona were relocated to company housing so that the farm could retain its low-wage and reportedly “more compliant” incarcerated labor force despite the COVID-19 lockdowns that would halt the prison’s work-release program.

As I show in my book Coerced: Work Under Threat of Punishment, the defining feature across all these forms of prison labor is the infliction of punishment, or the threat of punishment, to secure compliance. When incarcerated workers do not obey a command from the corrections officers who oversee their labor, they can be fined a week’s wages, put on “keeplock” (confined to one’s own cell), and put in solitary confinement. Because of these punishments, moreover, incarcerated people can lose opportunities for parole. The risks of noncompliance for incarcerated workers thus include losing crucial connections with friends and family, losing access to essential food, amenities, recreation, and freedom of movement (however constrained), and, for some, losing the possibility of future freedom.

Carceral Labor Beyond Prison

Yet carceral labor does not only take place behind prison walls. As Noah Zatz has demonstrated, it extends far beyond the prison to include multiple forms of work that are enforced by the carceral state but whose subjects are not incarcerated.

Without giving an exhaustive account of the forms of carceral labor that exist in the “free world,” I will briefly mention four of them here.

First is probation and parole work requirements. As Zatz’s research has shown, the approximately 5 million people who are on probation or parole each year are almost universally required to find and maintain employment as a condition of freedom. If they do not hold down a job—no matter how dangerous, difficult, or degrading—they can be incarcerated.

Second is unpaid, court-ordered “community service,” often performed in lieu of, and under threat of, incarceration. Zatz and colleagues write:

Court-ordered community service is typically understood as a progressive alternative to incarceration for people who would otherwise face jail time and/or court debt they cannot afford to pay. However, it also functions as a distinct system of labor that operates outside the rules and beneath the standards designed to protect workers from mistreatment and exploitation.

This form of labor is widespread. In a single year in Los Angeles County, Zatz and colleagues found that these workers performed some 8 million hours of free labor, which translates into 4,900 full-time jobs. Further, many such workers have difficulty completing their unpaid labor assignments, resulting in incarceration and debt.

The third type is labor compelled by criminal legal debt. People entangled with the criminal legal system face myriad monetary sanctions, including usage fees, public defender fees, bail fees, booking fees, supervision fees, and drug testing fees, which accumulate not only from a single conviction but, for many, from multiple convictions over the course of their lives. Katherine Beckett and Alexes Harris find that, across 500 randomly selected defendants, the average accumulated legal debt was $11,471. Unpaid debts can trigger parole violation and re-incarceration, and can render debtors ineligible for TANF and other social welfare programs (if they are not already ineligible due to felony convictions). To avoid such sanctions, defendants’ loved ones often help shoulder the costs of carceral debts, spreading the financial burden of criminalization across families and kin networks.

The fourth type of carceral labor is the unwaged yet extensive work required to simply navigate the carceral system: attending court (often spending dozens of days waiting for an appearance), building a legal defense, completing court-ordered programs (e.g., anger management, addiction treatment), meeting with parole officers, obtaining and filing paperwork, taking drug and alcohol tests, visiting and advocating for loved ones in jails and prisons, and otherwise complying with any number of carceral mandates.

While it may seem counterintuitive to consider some of these forms of work as “carceral labor,” my point is less to advance a terminological claim about what counts as carceral labor than to emphasize the many ways that the carceral state coerces people into work even outside the confines of carceral spaces.

Carcerality and Labor Discipline

So far, I have provided an overview of different forms of carceral labor operating in the U.S. economy. What might this landscape of carceral labor reveal about the relationship between work and prison more broadly?

In my recent book Labor and Punishment: Work In and Out of the Prison, I identify two critically important mechanisms that drive the looping effects between mass incarceration and economic insecurity.

The first is that incarceration not only acts as an external stigmatizing “mark” that formerly incarcerated people bear, like Hester Prynne’s scarlet A, but it also produces internal change in their expectations and experiences of work. Through compulsory and coercive labor in prisons, jails, and immigration detention centers, as well as in the pervasive job “preparation” and “counseling” programs to which prisoners, parolees, and probationers are subjected, carceral subjects are primed for precarious work. So they come to expect—and sometimes embrace—low-wage, unstable, and insecure work outside of prison. Thus, just as Karl Marx and other theorists argued that labor produces worker subjectivities in addition to goods and services, labor and job training within the criminal legal system produce carceral subjectivities centered on labor compliance and acceptance of degraded and precarious work.

The second key mechanism sustaining the iterative relationship between incarceration and economic insecurity is carcerally mandated precarity. For, regardless of whether carceral subjects internally embrace precarious work, their docility and compliance are actively enforced by the criminal legal system. This is because, as indicated by the various forms of non-prison-based carceral labor discussed above, many Americans who are not incarcerated are nonetheless compelled to maintain employment as a condition of their freedom from incarceration. This requirement effectively compels them to accept and keep any job—no matter how degraded—thereby intensifying their exploitability and socioeconomic marginality.

In short, the criminal legal system mandates labor compliance among the carcerally entwined precariat, fueling the feedback loop between mass incarceration and economic insecurity. Paying attention to these dynamics reveals how labor precarity cannot be understood simply as a product of shrinking government and declining employment standards. Precarity is also actively produced by government investment in carcerality. The United States’ expansive carceral state thus functions as a regime of labor discipline, one that molds and enforces worker compliance, vulnerability, and insecurity both within and far beyond prison walls.

Image: BP Miller/Unsplash