COVID MONEY: Dirty & Deadly

Incarcerated people need jobs for the same reason everyone else does: money.

“There is an outrageous amount of fines associated with being incarcerated,” says Lindsey Feldman, an anthropologist at the University of Memphis who studies prisons. “The vast majority of folks coming out of prison are significantly in debt. Saving up money is a goal that a lot of people have while they’re in, but that’s real tough when you’re getting paid a nickel or a dime an hour.”

That’s true even if you land a job working for an outside corporation that is legally required to pay minimum wage. “You can take it all back with charges for things like room and board or victim restitution,” says Thompson. “Minimum wage is a mythology.”

Still, missing out on any money that could chip away at those debts is a significant loss.



As the coronavirus cripples the economy, leaving millions unemployed and many companies on life support, big businesses that have become synonymous with the world’s largest prison system are still making money.

“It’s hard. Especially at a time like this, when you’re out of work, you’re waiting for unemployment … and you don’t have money to send,” said Keturah Bryan, who transfers hundreds of dollars each month to her 64-year-old father at a federal prison in Oklahoma.

Meanwhile, she said, prisons continue to gouge.

“You have to pay for phone calls, emails, food,” she said. “Everything.”



“The industry behind mass incarceration is bigger than many appreciate. So is the harm they cause and the power they wield. They exploit and abuse people with devastating consequences.”

A new report by New York-based advocacy group Worth Rises detailed some 4,100 corporations that profit from the country’s prisons and jails. It identified corporations that support prison labor directly or through their supply chains.

The group also recommended divesting from more than 180 publicly traded corporations and investment firms considered to cause the greatest harm to people behind bars and the communities that support them.

The report includes vendors that stock commissaries with Cup Noodles and Tide laundry detergent, along with contracted health care providers that have been sued for providing limited or inadequate coverage to those behind bars.

There are companies like Smith & Wesson that make protective gear for correctional officers and Attenti that supply electronic ankle bracelets. Other household names, such as Stanley Black & Decker, have entire units dedicated to manufacturing accessories for prison doors.

Incarcerated people also work, making everything from license plates to body armor vests and mattresses. In California, some even serve as firefighters. But in some places, they are employed by major corporations such as Minnesota-based 3M.

Billed as a cheap alternative to foreign outsourcing, inmates also previously provided goods to Starbucks, Victoria’s Secret and Whole Foods, sparking an uproar.