Talk about equal labor rights often centers around large multinational corporations exploiting cheap labor in poor countries in Southeast Asia. However, the issue of injustice in prison wages here in the United States is starting to make headlines. From a blog titled “Injustice In Justice,” Colleen examines the issues surrounding labor rights in prisons and makes the argument that low prison wages are the root of a much larger societal problem.
Here are the numbers: about half of the 1.6 million Americans serving time in prison have full-time jobs. The vast majority of these workers, almost 700,000, still do “institutional maintenance” work such as mopping cell block floors, preparing and serving food in the dining hall, mowing the lawns, filing papers in the warden’s office, and doing laundry. Compensation varies from state to state and facility to facility, but the median wage in state and federal prisons is 20 and 31 cents an hour, respectively.
After reading this post, I decided to do some research before making an informed opinion on the topic. What piqued my interest was whether or not prisons are stealing business from private manufacturers on the basis of low wages. I found an article that talked about how certain government-run enterprises that employ inmates are stealing business from private companies. One such enterprise, Unicor, employs over 13,000 inmates with an average wage of 23 cents an hour. With some exceptions, Unicor gets first dibs on federal contracts over private companies as long as its bid is comparable in price, quantity and delivery. This is making private companies like American Apparel very angry, given that the popular clothing brand pays its employees an average of $9 an hour plus benefits. Should Unicor be required to pay prisoners more in order to lower the cost discrepancy between it and private companies? Colleen would argue that this would not only be better for business but help better prepare inmates for life after prison. But as a taxpayer, do we want our taxes to go up because the government has decided to pay prisoners higher wages? For now, it appears that Unicor’s low wages are a very competitive advantage in certain industries.