I recently replied to an inquiry from a reporter interested in prison labor in the United States. Expecting to respond to questions about the on-the-ground practice or management of penal labor, I was instead asked a basic question: How many prisoners actually work in the US? The answer to this, which should be easy to find, is actually a bit tricky. It is by now common knowledge that the nation's prison system is itself a massive institution, holding over 1.3 million individuals at any given time and over 2.2 million at some point throughout a year. But statistics on how many of the incarcerated engage in labor programs behind bars today is not as readily available. In hopes of assisting other folks who have the same question, I wanted to share what information is systematically available on the topic.
The most recent hard numbers on prison labor participation come from the "Census of State and Federal Adult Correctional Facilities, 2005" from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Estimates suggest that the trends observed in this census hold for state and federal institutions today (for a recent example see Hatton 2017), but BJS reports have not yet been updated to confirm this.
So here's what penal labor looked like in 2005:
- Of the 1,227,402 prisoners in state prisons at the point of data collection, 775,469 (63%) engaged in some form of labor program behind bars (more, if we were to only count able-bodied prisoners not held at restrictive custody levels). The numbers for federal prisons weren't reported, but they hold a much smaller prisoner population overall and we might safely assume that the rates are the same if not higher. (As an illustration, state prisons in 2017 held over 1.3 million individuals while federal prisons held 197,000.)
- 88% of all state and federal prison facilities had some form (often several forms) of prisoner work programs.
- Such programs were more prominent in public prisons than private prisons. 97% of publicly managed institutions put prisoners to work, while only 54% of private institutions did so.
- Within prisons that rely on prisoner labor, the most common positions are "facility support" positions, which include things like kitchen work, maintenance, etc. around the institution. 74% of these state and federal prisons housed these program.
- In addition, 44% of facilities operated "public works" programs, in which working prisoners engage in highway cleanup, park and forestry maintenance, etc. in surrounding municipalities.
- Next, 31% of state and federal prisons housed "correctional industries" programs. These are state-run programs which find prisoners engaging in a variety of productive labors (and sometimes limited service work) to benefit state and sometimes private consumers. For instance, correctional industries programs manufacture license plates, office furniture, paper products, uniforms, street signs, etc.
- Finally, 28% of prisons allowed prisoners to engage in some form of "work release" in 2005, through which they engaged in work relationships with public institutions or private firms beyond the walls of the prison.
HERE is a direct link to the 2005 BJS report for those interested, which contains other information relevant to penal labor.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics has stated that they plan to release an updated report at some point, following further data collection (the last time I asked was around two years ago and I was told that they had plans to field another round of the census some time in 2017). With any luck, we'll have updated official numbers soon, but these are the best data available for now.
In the meantime, if anyone has their own data on prison labor programming that they're willing to share, please do!
(Michael Gibson-Light is an ABD student at the University of Arizona School of Sociology. His dissertation entails an 18-month ethnographic study of the structure of penal labor, the practices and strategies of working prisoners, and the formal and informal economic outcomes of work behind bars in a US men's state prison. More information can be found on his personal website.)
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