To add insult and exploitation to the injury of punishing the poor with prison, the injustice system imprisons these peoples, and then gives them "jobs" at an average "pay" of $.46 per hour in the federal system and $.56 in the state system (in 1991).(6) And increasingly, as we and others have reported elsewhere, prisons then charge prisoners for their necessities, such as health care and even food.
Let's do a little calculation, assuming these statistics are accurate (they're the best we have). In 1991, 481,979 state prisoners worked jobs in prison, at an average pay rate of $.56 per hour. Some didn't get paid, or got only "nonmonetary" compensation (such as good time or other benefits), but we don't know the details of that so we assume it averaged out to $.56 per hour, the paid wage rate, though it might well be even less. From the figures in the report, we can estimate how many paid hours these prisoners worked in 1991: 10,278,194 per week. At $.56 per hour, that would be $299 million per year in wages. If those workers had been paid even the minimum wage of $4.25 in 1991, it would have been $2.3 billion, or a "savings" for the states of $2 billion. In fact, the average wage in 1991 for the whole country was $11.41 per hour.(8) Compared to that rate, the state governments saved $5.8 billion. Because prisoners are doing work that doesn't pay as much as most work on the outside, we can maybe split the difference, so the state governments saved $3.9 billion in 1991 by paying prisoners $.56 per hour instead of a wage rate halfway between minimum wage and the average wage.
That's just one year, and it's just state prison inmates. Back then, there were only 700,000 state inmates altogether. Now, as of 1997 there were 1.1 million state prisoners (and 1.7 million including federal prisons and jails).(7) If this were the same every year, that $3.9 billion in 1991 would be $27 billion from 1991 to 1997. But if we assume a steady annual increase from 700,00 to 1.1 million over these years, and nothing else changes, the total would increase to $35 billion from 1991 to 1997. And that's just for seven years.
That state-prison $.56 per hour works out to $1,120 per year if you assume 50 forty-hour weeks, which is more or less in line with Third World wages in most of the world. Of course, these work conditions are very different, but there are some similarities. State governments have to spend a lot of money to get these conditions. They have to staff police departments to grab prisoners, and build and run prisons, and so on. They do this, even though it costs more than the profits they get from prison workers, because the capitalist system gets other benefits from it, such as ruined communities and lots of future lower-wage workers with less political power. This is not too different from conditions in the Third World outside North America, where the imperialists have to spend billions of dollars on military budgets and "aid" to keep the labor conditions the way they are, and the imperialists benefit from these conditions many times over.
6. Comparing State and Federal Inmates, 1991. Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. NCJ#-145864.
7. Prisoners in 1997, Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, NCJ#-170014.
8. U.S. Statistical Abstract 1994, p. 433
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