two men doing metal work and earning a low prison wage

Prison Wages Must Increase in Maryland

In December 1865, Georgia became the 27th state to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment and thus enumerated the abolition of slavery into the United States Constitution. However, the Thirteenth Amendment contains a lesser-known exemption clause that allows slavery as a “punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Because of this clause, over 150 years later, the prison labor industry is thriving.

Currently, more than 2.2 million people are incarcerated in the United States. These inmates provide a bounty of cheap and unregulated labor for state governments and large corporations. Generally, if an inmate is cleared by medical staff, then the inmate is required to work under threat of punishment. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, in 2017 prison wages varied by job from a high of $1.41 per hour to as little as $0.14 per hour. There are even eight states where payment is not required at all. Under federal employment law prisoners are not classified as “employees.” Therefore, prison laborers are not covered by the basic worker protections provided by the Fair Labor Standards Act or the Occupational Safety and Health Act. These legal loopholes create conditions that exploit vulnerable human beings.

Supporters argue that this system of prison labor is important for inmate rehabilitation as work boosts self-esteem and prepares the inmates for re-entry. In some cases this is true. However, this argument tends to be simplistic given the variety of inmate employment experiences. For example, according to the ACLU, California has relied on prison labor to fight forest fires for years for a little over a dollar a day. However, once released, these inmates were excluded from finding employment as firefighters until a new law was passed in 2021 which attempts to make the employment process easier for former-inmates. Even assuming the truth of the claim, the current system of prison labor is still fundamentally problematic. The concept that forced labor is necessary for personal growth is paternalistic and has uncomfortable echoes in history. The Thirteenth Amendment may legally allow prison labor, but it also inextricably binds the system of prison labor to slavery.  This relationship is made more troubling by how vastly overrepresented Black people are in the U.S. prison population, and therefore also in the prison labor force.

According to a 2019 report published by the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, prison wages in Maryland vary between $0.17 and $1.16 per hour. The most common work opportunities available to inmates are often in dangerous industries such as meatpacking, laundry, and metal work. In 2021, a bill requiring that inmates are paid no less than the state minimum wage was introduced in the Maryland legislature. The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing but the legislation failed to advance.

Opponents of the bill argue that paying prisoners the Maryland minimum wage is too expensive and not fiscally sustainable. This argument rests upon the assumption that the problem of cost comes from paying fair wages rather than from the structure of the criminal-justice system itself. The state could reduce cost by reducing the inmate population and yet it chooses not take this action. Further, not all prison jobs are created equal. An exploited inmate in a dangerous and unfulfilling job is less likely to reap the benefits of self-esteem and preparation for re-entry than an inmate who is being fairly compensated in a skilled position. Increasing prison wages will force the state to be more discerning about what programs provide tangible benefits to inmates. Prisoners deserve to be treated with basic human dignity, and this includes dignity in the workplace and getting paid fair wages.