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Why Incarcerated People Work

A new research project seeks to understand present prison labor conditions—and build a path toward lasting freedom.


In recent years, activists and politicians across the country have fought to eliminate the “exception clause” in the Thirteenth Amendment, which permits slavery or involuntary servitude “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Proponents of this effort lobby state legislatures to eliminate this language because they argue it warrants “prison slavery.” In addition to the moral justification, they contend this change will have material benefits for imprisoned people, such as grounds for wage increases and improved prison conditions. So far, twelve states have eliminated the exception clause, most recently Alabama, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont.

Largely absent from this effort, though, is a proper understanding of how incarcerated people themselves understand their relationship to work and their reasons for doing it. In our conversations with incarcerated comrades, we have found that, when they work, they do so for a variety of reasons that extend beyond being forced to. These conversations motivated us to create The Work and Us, a project dedicated to understanding prison labor from the stories and perspectives of imprisoned people.

Our investigation starts from the premise that imprisoned people are privileged knowers of their experiences. They understand their motivations, including their survival needs and the tradeoffs of working. They understand that working is often a complicated choice, given that most prison jobs keep the prison running. Of course, these motivations and decisions vary greatly due to a variety of factors such as location, race, gender, sexuality, age, and length of sentence. These are a few dimensions we aim to study and better understand through The Work and Us.


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A collection of essays at the intersection of labor and the carceral state, in partnership with LPE Blog.

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Building particular, localized knowledge is essential to understanding how to organize a movement that both shifts public consciousness and improves material conditions for people who are imprisoned. For this reason, The Work and Us employs a localized and participatory approach. We began by creating a survey based on the insights of incarcerated people in Texas, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. The survey aims to understand the nature of work behind bars, but also the meaning that people make from their experiences with prison labor. To this end, the survey asks participants about their jobs, pay, and working conditions, as well as to reflect on the how and why questions around their experiences. Questions include:

  • Do you work? If so, what is your job?
  • Does your job keep the prison running?
  • Why do you work?
  • How do you feel about jobs that keep the prison running?
  • Do you talk about wages and work with other prisoners? Why or why not?

In this way, the survey becomes an intervention, prompting people to think about themselves as sources of knowledge for anti-prison organizing as well as political agents with the potential for building collective power.

So far, we have distributed the survey to thousands of people through zines and prison newspapers, and directly connected with hundreds of imprisoned people throughout the United States. Our objective is to receive survey responses from all fifty states and federal prisons. By doing so we hope to gain a more comprehensive, nuanced analysis of prison labor across the United States, while supporting groups who are organizing locally with information, connections, and a network.

Given that prison mail and email policies change constantly, the process of distributing the survey has been challenging. While we initially hoped to distribute the survey via email (in order to prepay email responses and compensate respondents with additional email stamps), we realized that very few states permit prepaying postage, and a number of states and facilities don’t offer electronic messaging at all. Despite these challenges, we have received 250 responses from 22 states, with the majority coming from California, Texas, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Washington.

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Borrowing from anti-colonial theorists, we take seriously the idea that our research must engage, in the words of Indigenous education scholar Dwayne Donald, “relationality-as-accountability.” For us, accountability means building community and capacity as we engage imprisoned people in the research process. To this end, we have worked with imprisoned people to help us collect insights from others incarcerated in the same facility. We have also sent reading materials inside that focus on local organizing and abolitionist work taking place in their respective states. The network we are building will be fundamental for the future political education components of our work. For example, after we finish collecting surveys, we plan to create a zine with insights and analysis to send to all survey participants. We hope this will be a starting point for conversations about labor and the prison, as we aim to engage our network in a collaborative analysis process in which participants can offer their own interpretations of initial results.

Insights from the Survey

While we are still in an early phase of the project and do not yet have a full set of results to share, the surveys we have received so far demonstrate that incarcerated people experience and interpret work behind bars in diverse, nuanced ways. These experiences, in turn, indicate that a one-size-fits-all approach focused on labor may not be the best way to improve the material conditions of imprisoned people, and will certainly not get us any closer to abolishing the prison–industrial complex.

Legislative efforts to end involuntary servitude and increase minimum wages are well-intentioned—and even sometimes effective—steps toward protecting incarcerated people from the extreme exploitation of uncompensated labor under threat of further punishment. However, they don’t attend to the root cause of exploitation, which is the prison itself. Some advocates have created the impression that ending involuntary servitude will address the violence of incarceration by establishing that imprisoned people are deserving of humanity and dignity—but humanity and dignity are denied from imprisoned people regardless of whether they are forced to work. Our conversations with imprisoned people across the country attend to this and complicate the question of whether labor is the root of exploitation in prison. A few examples from our conversations so far highlight this tension.

In 2018 Colorado became one of the first states to pass an amendment to end de jure involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime. We reached out to imprisoned people in Colorado to ask about the legislation and its effects on life in prison. Colorado prisoner Tommy summarizes what we learned from these conversations:

The policy change has had no effect on anything here. No pay rate changes, but prices for canteen and hygiene products and phone time fees have been raised again at least three times in 2022, the latest being December 5, 2022.

In short, repealing the constitutional penal exception hasn’t improved the material conditions of people imprisoned in Colorado at all. Unchanged as well is that, with respect to their dignity and humanity, primary concerns of Colorado’s incarcerated remains to ensure that their basic needs are met and that they have viable pathways to freedom. As Darrin writes from Colorado:

Many people aren’t working and want to. Due to immense staffing shortages, many tasks are put onto the inmates that were unheard of before. My facility is experiencing a 25 percent staffing shortage which has caused many programs and education opportunities, which facilitate a path to freedom, to shut down. Instead of fixing the problems we are being placated in time with video game consoles and snacks.

Respondents from other states elaborated on the idea that prison jobs can be opportunities, especially if working improved their chances of parole or allowed them to develop tangible skills to use post-release. Jessica in Arizona writes:

I feel like I am very lucky and blessed to have the job I have at Televerde. I have learned so many skills and have secured a career for my future. Women who leave prison working for Televerde make $48,500–85,000 a year when they first get out. It is an amazing opportunity. I think there should be more effort in having these types of opportunities for more incarcerated individuals. Televerde has about 400 incarcerated women in their employ, but I’m sure there are other companies that could work with the incarcerated population to provide opportunities to more people.

While Jessica sees the work she is doing as a means of securing a life for herself upon release, her experience is far from representative of what most incarcerated women can expect. Recent analysis from the Prison Policy Initiative shows that people coming home from prison earn an average of 53 percent of the median U.S. worker’s wage, which was $31,000 in 2019.

For others, labor in prison is unambiguously exploitative and perhaps more justifiably analyzed as slavery. Keesha explains that the men incarcerated in Memorial Unit in Brazoria County, Texas, “already picks cotton. There are rumors about planting crop-cotton next year at our women’s prison because women’s hands are smaller.” She also notes that “white women are never assigned to the fields due to their perceived vulnerability.” Keesha understands these circumstances of labor in Texas prisons as slavery, in part because the labor is forced and unpaid, but also because the underlying logic of how work is assigned evokes the same gendered and racial hierarchies that governed antebellum Texas. These historical echoes are amplified by the images Keesha describes of “whites on horses—armed as Black and Brown bodies tend crops.”

These divergent experiences of prison labor speak to the importance of addressing short-term conditions while also securing pathways to freedom. When asked what she wants outside allies to fight for, Jessica asked to expand the employment program in which she is participating—but also pointed out that she wants “outside allies to fight for us not to have to pay 30 percent of our wages (for ACI jobs) for ‘room and board’ when the prison is paid handsomely by the government already for housing us.” Keesha wants “allies to fight to end field work and provide labor to prepare us for work once released at a minimum wage in conditions that are safe and air conditioned.”

When crafting demands and building campaigns, it is critical for organizers to be aware of the diversity of experiences, needs, and demands among incarcerated people. For example, Jessica’s insights about exploitative “room and board” wage garnishment policies reveal that a campaign focused on increasing wages in prisons is unlikely to produce material change unless it also prevents the recapturing of those wages. Further, Jessica’s sense of gratitude around her work indicates that campaigns that focus on labor as exploitation—as opposed to the prison itself as exploitation—may lack support from many incarcerated people, who regard job assignments as pathways to securing their freedom and economic security post-release.

By sharing stories of imprisoned people, we hope to provide local organizers with insights from a diverse group of people in prison and connect them to a network of incarcerated experts and organizers with whom they can co-conspire to address the needs and objectives of imprisoned people.

Building Knowledge and Capacity Through Research

By recognizing imprisoned people as experts of their own experiences, The Work and Us aims to develop a more nuanced understanding of the issue of labor behind bars. Through this, we can help build better campaigns that are reflective of this diversity, rather than pursuing symbolic or one-size-fits-all legislation. The survey not only provides localized perspectives and insights from underrepresented groups of prisoners but also serves as an intervention, aiming to complicate conversations inside and outside prison walls and expand our imagination with respect to how prison labor relates to the goal of abolition.

In addition to building knowledge, this project builds capacity for the abolitionist movement. We are using the research process as an entry point to bring people into abolition and build a sustainable network, first through inside–outside connections and subsequently through political education. While the insights generated through direct conversation with imprisoned people are a critical piece of this project—through which we learn about the specific conditions and constraints that shape needs and demands—the real strength of participatory action research is in the community power we build through our relational approach.

Image: BP Miller/Unsplash/Inquest