Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Working conditions in the California state prison system are exploitative and discriminatory. Inmate workers do not get paid enough for the quality work they put out. According to Prison Policy Initiative’s April 2017 article, California inmates made 8 cents to 37 cents an hour in regular jobs and 30 cents to 95 cents an hour in prison industry jobs.  A wage above 50 cents an hour is rare. The jobs include electricians, carpenters, cooks, orderlies, fire crew members, braille transcribers and more. 

The prison system may think paying inmates low wages is an ideal way to save state revenue but the negative impacts are detrimental and outweigh the positive ones.

For instance, low wages discourage inmates from wanting to hold onto their jobs or be enthusiastic in their job performance.

Inmates are more likely to settle for dealing drugs in prison than work for slave wages. They are also more likely to steal whatever they can get their hands on in order to offset the shortage of their income. From my personal experience and observation, motivations for theft can also come from resentments toward the establishment. 

When the state prison system is being cheap, it inadvertently encourages inmates to keep on stealing to make ends meet. This is the wrong direction for rehabilitating inmates. No wonder the recidivism rates for non-lifer inmates in California are still very high. 

The prison economy system must change. I propose that inmate workers in the Supportive Services job group, for example, should be paid a minimum of 50 cents an hour to a maximum of $3 an hour. California will save a lot of tax-payers’ money and the recidivism rates will also be drastically reduced.

The California Prison Industrial Authority (CALal-PIA) makes millions of dollars each year in contracts for to produce car license plates, firefighter uniforms, furniture, textiles, shoes, optical equipment, silk-screening, printing, soap and cleaning supplies, laundry, meat plants, coffee-roasting, food and beverage packaging, dairy, poultry, and more. The inmate workers in these industrial jobs put out high- quality work for pennies. Their starting pay rate is around 35 cents an hour and their top pay rate is only for the very rare leadership positions. 

I  propose that inmate industrial workers start out at the same state minimum wage rates as citizens in the streets, to a maximum of double the rate. This way, the inmates can pay state income taxes as well as have saving accounts for money they can use when they parole. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Tue Kha

Tue Kha is a writer incarcerated in California. He is working on a novel titled "Kormic."