Prison Labor

In prisons, jails, and detention centers across the U.S., incarcerated people are required to work for little to no pay. If an incarcerated person refuses to work, they can face punitive resources, including losing visitation and phone privileges, or being placed in solitary confinement. While the U.S. has taken steps towards blocking imports made from incarcerated workers in China, the legality of prison labor within the US remains entrenched in the Thirteenth Amendment. The Thirteenth Amendment abolishes all forms of slavery and involuntary servitude “except as punishment for crime.

Within the U.S. penal system, there are three levels: federal, state, and local. The prisons on the federal level are managed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). In May 2017, the BOP had a population of over 180,000 incarcerated people within 122 prison facilities. Each state manages its own state prisons and local jails through its Department of Corrections. The prison populations vary across state and county. In 2015, there were 1.35 million incarcerated people in state prisons and 728,000 within local jails. In May 2017, there were approximately 441,000 immigrant detainees within detention centers across the US. These detention centers are managed under Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The three penal systems have different regulations and practices governing prison labor. There are labor programs in 90 percent of prisons across the U.S.. These programs vary from maintenance jobs to correctional industry jobs. The majority of incarcerated people, about 96 percent, have institutional maintenance jobs, such as cooking, laundry, or janitorial duties. The remaining 4 percent, approximately 62,000 incarcerated people, work for various correctional industries. Each state, and the BOP, has a correctional industry. These jobs produce goods or services for an outside vendor, most commonly the U.S. government or state universities and colleges. The goods and services produce range from making license plates and furniture to producing dentures or working in a call center.

There is some controversy about prison labor amongst activists. Some view it as an opportunity for incarcerated people to gain useful skills for post-release life. For example, a Californian prison has partnered with a technology company to build websites. These activists argue that incarcerated people should work, but that the labor should be meaningful, safe, and voluntary, and compensated comparatively to labor outside of prison. However, as many activists have remarked, prison labor is “institutional slavery.” For these activists, the only solution is to repeal the “punishment for a crime” exception within the Thirteenth Amendment.

Another controversy surrounds the extent, power, and influence of prison labor. In 2015, the estimated value of prison-made goods was more than $2 billion. Haystack Mountain, a private company that produced goat cheese, relied on the "cheap manpower" to make a profit. In 2014, a state representative from Oregon urged Nike to move its operations from Indonesia because “we’re offering you competitive prison labor.” 

The following information includes a brief history of prison labor, general information regarding prison labor at the federal and state levels, immigrant prison labor, and companies involved in the use of prison labor. The companies directly contracted with these correctional industries are usually small and local, but large corporations may profit from prison labor provided to one of their suppliers or manufacturers, if they fail to closely monitor their supply chain. In 2015, Whole Foods received public criticism because two of its suppliers used prison labor to produce its goods. Such supply chain violations are generally hard to track and expose. 


Prison labor has morphed throughout the years, from convict leasing in the 1800s to chain gangs in the 1900s. In the early 1900s, spurred by a labor unions and a growing unemployment rate, new regulations were introduced by Congress against prison labor. In 1930, to help defray the cost of incarceration and reduce recidivism, Congress passed legislation that required the federal government “to provide employment for all physically fit inmates.” The legislation prohibited the public or private sale of prison-made goods. In 1934, the Federal Prison Industry (FPI) was established as a government-owned corporation. The FPI has operated under the trade name UNICOR and receives no federal funding. In 2017, UNICOR had 63 operations - or “factories with fences” - and 3 farms in 52 prison facilities, employing 12,2778 incarcerated people nationwide. In 2016, UNICOR made nearly $500 million in sales, and the incarcerated worker made between $0.23 and $1.15 per hour.

In 1979, Congress passed legislation that established the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP). PIECP is a certification program that allows for the manufacturing, selling, and distributing of products produced by prison labor to cross state lines. The companies that participate in PIECP are required to pay a prevailing wage, provide workers compensation and social security, and the deductions from the incarcerated workers pay (for taxes, room and board, family support, or victims’ compensation) cannot total more than 80 percent of the gross wages. The work must also be voluntary. As June 2017, PIECP has 47 certifications granted to prisons across the country, including four UNICOR facilities, and employs 5,720 incarcerated people.


In 2017, UNICOR operated within 52 prison facilities, employed 12,000 incarcerated workers, for wages from $0.23 to $1.15 per hour, and produced 80 products and services, from office furniture to data entry. UNICOR claims it reduces recidivism and provides incarcerated workers with skills for post-release life, although no study has shown that claim to be true. One longitudinal study found that participation in UNICOR did not affect recidivism rates at all.

Through federal mandate, government agencies are required to purchase from UNICOR first, if it produces the good or service at a comparable price. While UNICOR has advertised its participating in PIECP as a “reshoring initiative” -- to produce goods that are, or might be, produced outside the US -- there are instances in which UNICOR has taken jobs from US companies producing within the US. For example, in  2011, UNICOR received a contract, with no competition from other vendors, to produce military uniforms. Although UNICOR pays significantly lower wages (compared to $9.75, the average wage for an employee at another company that provides the military uniforms), the price of the uniforms were increased by fifteen percent. In 2007, UNICOR was awarded a non-competitive contract with the US military to produce helmets. UNICOR received the raw material to produce the helmets from 3M. However, the contract was cancelled in 2011 after 44,000 helmets were recalled due to failing military ballistic testings.

UNICOR has also come under fire for poor safety regulations. The recycling facilities routinely expose incarcerated workers to dusts from heavy metals, lead, barium, beryllium and cadmium, according to investigation from the Justice Department.

State and Local

There are correctional industries in each state, managed through the correctional departments. The rules and regulations vary in different levels and from state to state.

In Louisiana, at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, nicknamed “The Farm”, incarcerated workers farm wheat, corn, soybeans, and cotton. The crops can be purchased through Louisiana’s Prison Enterprises. There have been many lawsuits filed against Angola for its human right abuses, including inhumane and extreme working conditions of incarcerated workers. Louisiana's Prison Enterprises employees 1,000 incarcerated workers at 8 facilities.

In California, CALPIA, California Prison Industry Authority, manages incarcerated labor. CALPIA employs over 6,500 incarcerated workers, producing 1,500 goods and services. The majority, 3,900 incarcerated workers, are employed as firefighters for the state. From 2010 to 2016, CALPIA has received 11 Occupational Safety and Health Authority (OSHA) complaints. For more information regarding California and prison labor, find our report here.

Legal Issues

Employees in the U.S. are guaranteed protections through the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The FLSA “affords covered employees a ‘minimum standard of living necessary for health, efficiency, and general well-being” and requires employers provides a minimum wage and overtime pay. Incarcerated workers are not considered employees of the prison and are not eligible for labor or employment protections, and cannot unionize. The relationship between an incarcerated worker and the prison is considered noneconomic because the incarcerated person is not employed to earn a living from the prison, but rather to limit idleness, give skills to reduce recidivism, and to offset incarceration costs. These workers have no Constitutional right to work, which has been upheld by courts identifying the relationship between worker and institution as non-economic and non-market, therefore not an employment relationship.


In 2014, a lawsuit was filed against The GEO Group, Inc. (GEO) for forcing immigrant detainees to work for less than a $1 a day. The lawsuit, which became a class action lawsuit in 2017, claims that GEO violated federal trafficking laws through requiring immigrant detainees to work. In addition, the use of prison labor, justified within the Thirteenth Amendment, has been argued not to extend to immigrant detainees.


On September 9, 2016, incarcerated workers throughout the country launched a coordinated work strike to call attention to the poor working conditions of prison labor programs. The demographics of individuals participating in these work programs include poor or working class backgrounds, and disproportionately racial or ethnic minorities.  In late September, incarcerated organizers at the Alabama Holman prison reported that prison security guards have joined the work strike by refusing to work. The prison work strikes have been underreported in many media outlets. In October 2016, an estimated 20,000 incarcerated workers in 24 states participated in work or hunger strikes.


The use of prison labor can be hidden within supply chains. The majority of the companies employing incarcerated workers are small private companies, some of which might supply larger corporation. Whole Foods, McDonald’s, Victoria’s Secrets, and other large corporations have been exposed by the media as using prison labor through their respective supply chains, however each stopped contracting with those private companies when the information was made public.

3M provides raw materials to produce license plates in 43 prisons across the country. Additionally, Ceradyne, Inc., a wholly-owned subsidiary of 3M, contracted with UNICOR in 2008 to provide raw materials for incarcerated workers to produce helmets for the US military. The contract was terminated in 2010 after 44,000 helmets did not meet military ballistic standards.

UNICOR listed six companies under their “cooperative business agreements”.

The main companies involved in this sector are:
3M Company, of Odessa, FL (NYSE:MMM)
ASI Sign Company, of Irving, TX (Private)
Filtration Services, LLC, of Luemburg, WI (Private)
Humanscale, of Greenwood Village, CO (Private)
Nightingale Corporation, of Ontario, Canada (Private)
OEI, of Green Bay, WI (Private)
Uvex (formerly Titmus), of Colonial Heights, VA (Private)
The Geo Group
CoreCivic, Inc.

More Information about Publicly-Traded Companies

3M Company is a conglomerate corporation operating in the manufacturing, health care, and consumer goods industries. 3M Supplies materials for prison labor programs and for weapon systems used against civilians.

A US-based provider of food service, facility management services, and uniforms globally. Provides food and other logistical services to prisons and immigration detention facilities and uses forced prison labor.

A US-based conglomerate holding company and investment firm. Its subsidiary Shaw Industries uses prison labor. Other subsidiaries provide equipment, utilities, and uniforms to prisons and jails.

The world’s largest private prison corporation. Owns and manages over 100 correctional, detention, and other residential reentry facilities. Provides the government with other services as part of the criminal punishment system.

One of the largest retailers in the US. Has prison labor in its supply chain.

The world's 2nd largest private prison company and the largest "community corrections" and e-carceration business. Owns and operates prisons and immigrant detention centers in the US and abroad. Provides the government with other services as part of the criminal punishment system.

The world’s largest retailer. Uses prison labor in its supply chain.