by Wendy Sawyer
How much do incarcerated people earn? In 2003’s The Prison Index, we included wages reported by an obscure publication in 2001. Those numbers remain among the most searched-for and cited statistics we have published, although they are now almost twenty years old. Prison wages come up again and again in the context of prison conditions and policies, and were even at the center of the nationwide prison strike last fall. And no wonder: wages allow incarcerated people to purchase personal items not provided by the prison, pay ever-increasing fees, and bridge the gap after release. So, we set out to find the most up-to-date information available for each state.
For this update, we combed through the policies of state correctional agencies and any other available sources, and found information for almost every state. Despite the inaccessibility of data for some state prison jobs, this is the most comprehensive list of wages paid to incarcerated people available today:
|Jobs in state-owned businesses
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One major surprise: prisons appear to be paying incarcerated people less today than they were in 2001. The average of the minimum daily wages paid to incarcerated workers for non-industry prison jobs is now 87 cents, down from 93 cents reported in 2001. The average maximum daily wage for the same prison jobs has declined more significantly, from $4.73 in 2001 to $3.39 today. What changed? At least seven states appear to have lowered their maximum wages, and South Carolina no longer pays wages for most regular prison jobs – assignments that paid up to $4.80 per day in 2001. With a few rare exceptions, regular prison jobs are still unpaid in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Texas.
Incarcerated people assigned to work for state-owned businesses earn between 33 cents and $1.31 per hour on average – roughly twice as much as people assigned to regular prison jobs. Only about 6 percent of people incarcerated in state prisons earn these “higher” wages, however. An even tinier portion of incarcerated workers are eligible for “prevailing local wages” working for private businesses that contract with states through the PIE program. The vast majority spend their days working in custodial, maintenance, grounds keeping, or food service jobs for the institutions that confine them.
The wages listed above do not include any deductions, which in reality often leave incarcerated workers with less than half of their gross pay. In Massachusetts, for example, at least half of each paycheck goes into a savings account to pay for expenses after release. “Any and all funds” can be used to pay court-assessed fines, court costs, victim witness assessments, etc. New Mexico deducts 15-50% of each paycheck for a Crime Victims Reparations Fund, discharge money, and family support. These policies arguably serve legitimate purposes, but such deductions also mean that $1 per day earned to make day-to-day life behind bars more bearable is really 50 cents (or even less).
The question of wages paid for prison labor is an important one, especially when we consider the relative costs of fees charged and things sold to incarcerated people. The value of a dollar is different when you earn pennies per hour. (And in six states, the wage is almost always zero pennies per hour.) In Colorado, for example, it costs an incarcerated woman two weeks’ wages to buy a box of tampons; maybe more if there’s a shortage. Saving up for a $10 phone card would take almost two weeks for an incarcerated person working in a Pennsylvania prison.
With no savings, how can people possibly afford the immediate costs of food, housing, healthcare, transportation, child support, and supervison fees once released?
Making it hard for incarcerated people to earn real money hurts their chances of success when they are released, too. With little to no savings, how can they possibly afford the immediate costs of food, housing, healthcare, transportation, child support, and supervison fees? People with felony convictions are often ineligible for government benefit programs like welfare and food stamps, and face barriers to finding stable housing and employment. And they may leave prison with just a bus ticket and $50 of “gate money,” if they have no other savings. So the meager earnings from prison work assignments can be essential to a person’s success – and even survival – when they return to their community.
Most prison jobs teach incarcerated people very few skills relevant to the labor market they will rejoin upon release, so the wages they earn may be the only payoff they see. These perpetually low wages are especially frustrating when we consider the increasing expenses incarcerated people face, both inside and after release. Of course, raising wages is a tough sell politically, but policymakers and the public must acknowledge that almost everyone in prison will eventually be released. Their success and independence depends largely on financial stability, which is undermined by low wages, nickel-and-diming through “user fees,” mandatory deductions, and work that does little to prepare them for work outside of prisons. Forward-thinking policymakers must consider the importance of earnings and relevant job training for people they hope will be independent one day.
For details about each state’s wage policies, see the Appendix.
source: PRISON POLICY INITIATIVE