The 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which was ratified in 1865 at the close of the Civil War, reads as follows:
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Although the 13th Amendment was ratified to ban slavery, the provision as punishment for crimes was added in part to placate defeated Southern dissidents of the Civil War. Today however, the practical purpose of this amendment is to compel prisoners to engage in involuntary prison labor.
In general, labor or work crews are not applied to defendants in misdemeanor cases. One relatively common punishment for misdemeanors, community service, is something that some people actually enjoy. If you are convicted of a felony, you could be sentenced to a work crew as part of the punishment. But if you are sentenced to a prison term, you will be put to full time labor with little to no pay.
Oregon Prison Labor Laws
According to Oregon’s Measure 17, which was passed in 1994, all able-bodied prisoners are required to work at least 40 hours a week in order to help cover the costs of their incarceration. Those who refuse to work are punished, often with solitary confinement or longer sentences.
A report on hourly rates for incarcerated persons from Prison Policy shows that in Oregon prisoners are paid on average between 5 cents and 47 cents per hour for their work. In some rare cases, such as the call center at Oregon State Penitentiary, inmates can earn up to $200 a month, or roughly a dollar per hour. This may seem like peanuts, but be aware that in some states, such as Texas and Alabama, prisoners are paid nothing at all. In fact, Texas Correctional Industries is one of the most profitable corrections industries in the United States. However, in Oregon, ORS 421.405 prohibits the use of inmate labor to benefit officials.
Oregon Corrections Enterprises
In Oregon, a substantial amount of prison industry is controlled by Oregon Corrections Enterprises, which operates 28 businesses in 11 of Oregon’s 14 state prisons. These businesses include laundry service, garment factories, metal fabrication, contact centers, furnishings, textiles, and upholstery. (A complete list can be found at OCE’s website.) OCE is generally a profitable business as a whole, making 8-figure revenues year after year.
Not all Oregon prisoners work for OCE. In fact, only about 10% of all Oregon prisoners are employed by OCE. The rest are employed in more traditional jobs, such as prison kitchens, libraries, or custodial crews. Although Measure 17 requires all able-bodied prisoners to work, not all prisons are in full compliance. Some prisons simply do not have enough jobs to go around. In addition, OCE has been reported to maintain less profitable industries because there is tangible benefit to the state and/or to some prisoners.
Apart from the issue of near slave-like conditions, there are many questions about how good mandatory labor is for prisoners. One of the major questions of enforced prison labor is whether prisoners actually gain any useful skills that will help them upon release. In some cases, such as the automotive shop at the Oregon State Penitentiary, this may be true, but in other cases, such as laundry service, it is low-skill menial labor with little use outside of prison.
One of the positives of prison labor is that it allows prisoners to get out of their cells. Indeed, many prisoners will jump at the opportunity to spend 8 or even 12 hours outside of their locked confines. The drawback is that the low wages provide little incentive to become skilled at that labor, and long years of hard work in prison will often translate to nothing more than items bought at a prison commissary and legal fees or victims’ asssistance from their arrest, trial, and conviction.
Ultimately the controversy of prison labor rests largely on the 13th Amendment. Should prisoners, who have forfeited their freedom as a consequence of their crimes, be required to work to cover the costs of their incarceration? Should ultra-low-cost cheap inmate labor be a substitute for professional labor? These questions are part of the current ongoing debate in criminal justice circles.