What are Prison Industries?

Patrick Roland

The image of an inmate stamping out license plates during his prison sentence has come to symbolize prison industries for many people. Prison labor, such as the making of license plates, originally was utilized to save the government money, but it has come to include the production of many things for the private sector. Data entry and the manufacture of various products can be handled by convicted criminals. These operations help save companies money on labor, give the prisoners responsibility and financial reward and help subsidize prison expenses. There are many people, both outside and inside prisons, who oppose these labor practices.

Many prisons have work areas that engage in light industry through the use of inmate labor.
Many prisons have work areas that engage in light industry through the use of inmate labor.

Using prisoners for such things as making license plates and chain gang road work originally was introduced as a reward for good behavior and to save governments money on hiring workers to do this labor. Over the years, in an attempt to capitalize on this labor pool, prison industries have become big business. Some private companies hire prisoners to help make goods, and some prisons, such as the California Prison Industry Authority in the United States, handle all of the business themselves.

San Quentin State Prison in California.
San Quentin State Prison in California.

This is a benefit in manufacturing, because prisoners are paid a fraction of what employees outside of a penitentiary earn, saving large sums of money. Prisoners benefit from prison industries too, because it gives them a chance to earn money, however meager, while they are incarcerated. It also gives inmates a sense of accomplishment and is used as a reward for good behavior. The prisons also benefit from these industries because they often charge outside companies a fee or earn all of the money for themselves by manufacturing and selling products.

Manufacturing license plates is one use of prison industries.
Manufacturing license plates is one use of prison industries.

Prison industries are able to create a wide array of products. Furniture such as desks, chairs and couches are created by inmates. Refurbishing print cartridges has become a major industry for some jails. Repetitive data entry jobs frequently are performed by computer-savvy inmates.

Many people do not see the low cost of labor and opportunity for inmate employment that prison industries provide as positive things. Prisoners are not paid similar wages to those of their free counterparts, and the working conditions in prisons are poorly regulated. Some groups have protested this practice, asking for more rights for the prisoners.

Almost any kind of labor can be performed by inmates.
Almost any kind of labor can be performed by inmates.

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Discussion Comments


I saw a special on TV about a celebrity chef who went into a prison and chose inmates for a cooking program he started in the prison. The idea was to give the prisoners a foundation they could build on when they were released.

They made baked goods and then the chef sold them on the outside, so the prisoners were earning money. I like this idea. It gives the prisoners something to do while in prison and teaches them a skill they can use once they get out. On top of that, they are earning money while locked up.


Prison industries sound good in principle, but I have concerns with them when they are put into practice. The article mentioned that prisons receive money from companies using inmate labor. This sounds like a relationship that is bound to lead to corruption and exploitation of prisoners.

Also, prisoners are doing jobs that could be held by citizens who are not in prison. Companies are using prisoners to pad their bottom lines and not making jobs available to the general public.


I don't believe prisoners should be abused, but when you are convicted of a crime you shouldn't get a free ride either. I know prison is tough, but you're there for a reason. Prison jobs should be required of every prisoner and the money prisoners earn should go to the victims of the crimes they committed.

When you go to jail you give up some of your rights. That's just the reality of the situation.

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