Pennies an Hour, And Most of it Taken Away — The 13th Amendment In Action

By Tayba Foundation

We are excited to feature the following article by Tayba Foundation. This is the second in a series of educational articles to answer important questions about incarceration in America. You can also find this and other articles by Tayba on their Medium. And if you’d like to get updated when we publish more articles on the US prison system and how Muslims are affected by it, you can sign up at the link here.

“I make a 4 rate (.35¢/hour), which comes out to $27.10 every two weeks. But that’s before the state takes 60% for restitution — which leaves me with $11, sometimes $12, every two weeks.” ~ Tayba student

What would you say if someone offered you a job that paid just 90 cents an hour?

Believe it or not, for many of our students, $0.90 an hour is a dream come true. After all, it’s far more than the average prison job is paid — if they’re paid at all.

And these low wages have real negative repercussions for those behind bars. Being in prison is not free. Prisoners often have to pay fees to their institution and fines related to their crimes, and on top of that they pay for many of their necessities, like phone calls home, doctor’s visits, and basics like ibuprofen, toothpaste, and feminine hygiene products.

This is despite the fact that we, the taxpayers, already pay up to $130,000 per year for each prisoner our government keeps behind bars (or even more when it comes to medical facilities or high-security prisons).

And those things don’t come cheap. To put things in context, a doctor’s visit can cost anywhere from $2 to $100, which can amount to months of pay. At the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) commissary, Colgate toothpaste costs $2.45, which can be hours or days of work at the standard rates of pennies per hour. For many of our students, that means simply maintaining basic hygiene takes a serious dent out of their monthly pay, let alone purchasing a copy of the Qur’an.

After all, a copy of the Qur’an, which Muslims in prison typically have to pay for directly, can cost as much as $20, making it close to a month’s wages for most. Imagine paying $4,500, the median US monthly salary, to buy a mushaf.

But why should we care if those being punished for crimes are being underpaid and left in debt?

  • First, because there are many people profiting greatly off this system. The monies made from prison labor aren’t used to offset the cost to taxpayers — they line the pockets of corporations while incarcerated workers get nothing and taxpayers continue to foot sizable bills. This is part of the legacy of slavery in the US economy. (Learn more about that in our article on the 13th Amendment.)
  • Second, because cutting people off from their religion and community hurts not just them but their loved ones as well.
  • And third, because this system leaves prisoners in debt, making it harder for those who’ve served their time and paid their price to successfully reenter society and burdening their families with those debts.

Slaves By Any Other Name

You might wonder, how can all this be possible in the modern world? Isn’t there a minimum wage? It’s simple.

While many Americans believe that the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, it actually only changed the conditions under which slavery was acceptable.

In case you haven’t seen it in a while, the amendment reads:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.[…]”

In the US today, prisoners are legally allowed to be treated as slave laborers — and so they are. You can find out more about how the 13th amendment kept slavery alive and well in the United States here.

Legalized slavery profits corporations over communities

To make matters worse, it is not victims, criminals, or the communities they come from that benefit most from individuals being put behind bars. No study shows any benefit to long incarcerations without support or investment in social programs.

So who is benefiting?

The owners and managers of prison, and the people who benefit from the slave labor large prison populations afford them.

Incarcerated people do much of the work that keeps prisons running, yet many of them are charged incarceration fees for their room and board while in prison. Many even pay additional fines to the state as part of their punishment, meaning they literally pay for their crimes, not to mention payments made to people or businesses harmed by their crimes, court fees, and so on.

 As you can imagine, given the going hourly rate for their labor, this leaves many of them seriously in debt if and when they are released — and certainly no better off for their many hours of labor.

Here’s what one of our students shared:

“Working a private sector job, we get paid minimum wage and we get paid once a month — but we only get 20% of what we actually make and the other 80% goes towards our restitution, child support, etc. Now, if we don’t have such fines, that 80% goes to the state. As far as other institutional jobs, we are paid anywhere from 26 cents to $1 an hour. If the job only takes 15 minutes, that is what we usually get paid for. Now imagine not having any income coming in and this is all you were paid, 15–30 min. daily for 30 days, with needing money for the phone, hygiene, food and the 10% for gate fee (the percentage of earnings prisoners aren’t allowed to touch until they leave prison -ed.) and 20% for restitution and 50% for child support and May Allah Help the one who has multiple restitutions and children — it wouldn’t be worth working.”

In California, prisoner wages start at 8 cents per hour. In Arkansas, Georgia, and Texas, it’s not required that jobs be paid at all, whether you’re working for the prison or an industry job for UNICOR, the United States government’s corporation that runs and profits off prison labor from those in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. They work in textiles, electronics, woodworking, vehicle maintenance, and more. And for a lot of prisoners, there’s no option to refuse the work: in some states, it’s even legal to force prisoners to work for free under threat of solitary confinement. Why? Because, under federal law, every physically able prisoner who isn’t a security risk and doesn’t have a health exception is required to work.

Meanwhile, CoreCivic, just one of the many companies that operate private prisons and detention centers in this broken system, brings in nearly $2 billion a year in revenue off of those prisoners and their labor. In 2017, UNICOR had $483.8 million in net sales. Only 4% of their revenue went to the inmates doing the labor.

To show you how this works in action, we surveyed a number of Tayba students about their in-prison employment. We’ve removed their names and identifying details to ensure they don’t risk punishment or lost work for telling us about the realities of their situation.

 This first student is doing an important job — helping other prisoners get an education, which is something many behind bars lack and statistically one of the most effective things we can do to lower recidivism.

 “I’m in charge of the Education Resource Center (ERC) and I teach Science to GED students. My monthly salary is $38.80, though I do get once in a while half or full salary bonuses as well. Usually there are only 20–25 students allowed in each class, but in my classes there are often more than 40, proving it’s needed.”

 This job could help 40 other people have a better life behind bars and after their sentence is served, yet it is valued at next to nothing.

 “I’ve had the unit laundry job off and on for about a year. It’s a good job — normally we are locked in our cell 23 hours a day, but with this job, I get out for a few extra hours a day. That’s the main perk. The pay is a trivial 35¢ an hour.”

 To make matters worse, many prisoners, like this student, look forward to unpaid and underpaid labor because their facilities otherwise keep them confined. This student’s facility keeps all prisoners in their cells alone approximately 23 hours a day, whether or not they’re under disciplinary action from the facility. This is considered torture and a human rights abuse.

 So, not only is he helping his facility run in exchange for very little — he makes pennies per hour — he appreciates it as a way to avoid inhumanely long stretches of time behind bars.

 And his work is a benefit to the prison — were they to pay regular workers or a service to come in and do the laundry for the unit, they’d have to pay much more than 35 cents per hour. This is one of the many ways the companies that own and run prisons make more and spend less — all while still charging the taxpayers exorbitant fees.

 “I work in the library. They have a pay scale called pay range but it’s commonly referred to us as rates. Depending on your circumstances you will get paid anywhere from .05¢ an hour up to .45¢ an hour.

 Range 1: 12¢

Range 2: 19¢

Range 3: 26¢

Range 3A(school/program): 15¢

Range 4: 35¢

Range 5: 42¢

Involuntary unassigned: .05¢

Involuntary unassigned-Medical: .05¢

 Involuntary unassigned means you just got to the joint and you’re unable to get a work assignment so you get $4 every two weeks for personal care items off canteen that the State doesn’t supply for free.

 I make a 4 rate which comes out to $27.10 every two weeks. But that’s before the State takes 60% for restitution, which leaves me with $11, sometimes $12, every two weeks.”

 With $11 or $12 every two weeks, a prisoner with absolutely no other needs or costs could make about an hour of calls over the course of those two weeks, if they were willing to spend all their pay. For a prisoner with kids at home or a sickly parent, it’s a tough spot to be in.

 Yet, these workers are thankful for the opportunity

 And the real kicker? Despite these many injustices, most prisoners are just happy to have a job to do. Take this quote from a Tayba student:

 “I work for a company [that] contracts with the federal prison industry by the name of UNICOR. We produce mattresses, drapery, coveralls, and trousers. I work driving a forklift and managing a part of the warehouse in the factory. My job description is to unload raw materials from the trucks that come in, keep an accurate inventory of them, distribute them out to the proper areas, and load them back onto the trucks. The pay is around $0.90/hr and we work 6.25 hrs/day. It’s something that shows me that I can work outside of prison and not indulge in the things that got me here in the first place.”

 While the position is admirable, the system is not.

 Our brothers and sisters in prison are made to feel grateful for the opportunity to allow companies to profit off their backs.

 Isn’t being isolated from society, from their friends and family, from the comforts of home, and paying dues to their victims or the state enough?

 Should we be allowing them to be driven further into debt while the companies and agencies they work for turn profits?

 But that is the reality of the situation.

 Prisons being so profitable, it’s no wonder the US has more prisoners than any other country and imprisons its citizens at a rate higher than any other nation.


This unjust system will take time and activism to change

But in the meantime, we will do everything we can to support our Muslim brothers and sisters behind bars — where a Qur’an can cost as much as $20.00, amounting to weeks or months of wages.

 We at Tayba Foundation serve incarcerated Muslims: one of the most underserved prison populations and most of them converts to the faith. Where UNICOR fails, we fill the gaps. We provide life skills programs to help incarcerated Muslims become the productive community members they want to be, smoothly re-enter society, and find suitable homes and employment once they’ve served their time.

 This article is part of a series on Muslims in the U.S. prison system. Sign up to read the whole series and consider making a donation to support Muslims behind bars today.