My home state of Arizona made national news in 2017 when Sheriff Joe Arpaio received a pardon from President Trump for ignoring a court order to stop racially profiling Latinos as undocumented immigrants. The coverage resulted in scrutiny of the many alleged human rights violations by Arpaio, including operating Tent City for 24 years, an outdoor prison where inmates were forced to work in chain gangs. This archaic punishment involved inmates being bound together to perform physically strenuous tasks such as clearing land, repairing buildings, or paving roads without pay.
This month, my home state was the subject of another national controversy when Democratic Senator Sinema voted no on a $15 minimum wage with an exaggerated thumbs down motion. The minimum wage debate that has raged on since President Biden took office remains at the forefront of U.S politics, with Senator Bernie Sanders calling the current minimum a “starvation wage,” while those on the right argue that raising the minimum wage would raise the cost of living as well. Yet during this debate, there has been no mention of the fact that the federal government does not require inmates to be paid any minimum wage.
Compared to Arizona, the Commonwealth of Virginia is ostensibly more progressive in the realm of criminal justice: Virginia does not have outdoor prisons and is close to fully legalizing cannabis. However, inmates in Virginia are only paid between 27 and 45 cents an hour for their labor, a far cry from the current minimum wage of $7.25.
One may argue that these obscenely low wages are justified because the state takes care of an inmate's living expenses while they are incarcerated, but that is demonstrably not the case. Inmates have to pay for basic necessities such as toiletries, extra food, legal fees, and even phone calls to loved ones. One ex-federal inmate estimated that she spent more than $20,000 during her three-and-a-half year sentence. She was only able to afford this through help from her family on the outside, which is a luxury most inmates do not have.
Much like Arizona, Virginia is a recently-blue state, and many citizens may be sympathetic to Sheriff Arpaio’s so-called tough stance on crime. They might show a callous indifference to the plight of these inmates, whom they see as criminals who are repaying their debt to society.
I passionately disagree with this viewpoint. A plethora of data exists that points to the American criminal justice system being a fundamentally racist institution that profits off of locking young black men up for offenses that young white men get away with every day. Samantha Pereira of San José University even deems the current state of mass incarceration as a modern version of chattel slavery. As she points out, the 13th amendment explicitly allows slavery to exist “as punishment for a crime.”
However, one’s personal views of the American justice system and the moral standing of inmates is irrelevant when it comes to the issue of a minimum wage. If you support having a minimum wage then you implicitly support the idea that it is unethical to pay someone at a lower rate. The minimum wage exists to protect civil liberties from corporate greed and should be considered a right, not a privilege. Much like freedom of speech or protection from cruel and unusual punishment, then, it must be granted to inmates, whether you think they are largely innocent individuals being exploited for profit or morally reprehensible villains who have no place in civilized society.
Unfortunately, this seems unlikely in the near future, considering the massive profit that both the government and private corporations can reap from the exploitation of prisoners. The Bureau of Prisons reported making $500 million from its Federal Prison Industries program (also known as UNICOR) in 2016. In 2018, just the state of Connecticut made $7.7 million off of charging inmates to make phone calls.
Modern criminal justice legislation tends to avoid addressing demands for a minimum wage for inmates. While Donald Trump’s First Step Act was considered surprisingly progressive, it focused mainly on sentencing laws and reducing recidivism with no mention of prison labor. The Raise the Wage Act of 2021 also makes no mention of including inmates in the minimum wage.
In the meantime, however, there are some incremental measures that could improve inmate welfare. The aforementioned First Step Act, to its credit, did make feminine hygiene products available to inmates at no cost. The state of New York recently passed a bill that allowed inmates to make phone calls for free. Hopefully, states and the federal government will continue to pass legislation that makes necessities available to inmates at no cost.
Still, these incremental reforms do not take away from the fact that it is unethical to pay any human being below the minimum wage. Until we elect leaders who will stand up to the prison-industrial complex, these injustices will continue.
The views expressed above are solely the author's and are not endorsed by the Virginia Policy Review, The Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, or the University of Virginia. Although this organization has members who are University of Virginia students and may have University employees associated or engaged in its activities and affairs, the organization is not a part of or an agency of the University. It is a separate and independent organization which is responsible for and manages its own activities and affairs. The University does not direct, supervise or control the organization and is not responsible for the organization’s contracts, acts, or omissions.