Despite strides to improve the employment prospects of Georgians who have contact with the criminal legal system, state policy choices have counteracted those strides, demonstrating how much we undervalue and disinvest in Georgia workers.
This disinvestment is magnified as Georgia’s uneven pandemic recovery continues. The overall likelihood of unemployment in general and Black-white un- and underemployment gaps in particular have narrowed to record lows, and the overall number of filled jobs have been restored after heavy pandemic losses.
Still, Georgia workers at or near the bottom of the income ladder, as well as those who are not on the income ladder at all, experience an outsized amount of economic exploitation. They are disproportionately more likely to experience contact with the criminal legal system, and more likely to be criminalized and face employment barriers because of that contact. Often, contact with the criminal legal system is linked with an inability to make full, up-front payments toward fines and fees. The inability to pay these debts can quickly spiral into further harms, which at their least damaging could lead to employment barriers due to probation, driver’s license suspension and more debt. These barriers only create impossible choices to meet basic needs or pay debt, exacerbating desperation that increases the likelihood of incarceration.
And, for Georgians who experience incarceration, they face the worst workplace exploitation that is tied to private profiteering and overreliance on sanctioning economically vulnerable Georgians to balance public budgets. This continued exploitation of impoverished Georgia workers serves as a continued indictment of the way that Georgia undervalues the labor of its most economically vulnerable.
Our state’s public and private reliance on largely unpaid incarcerated labor contributes to the billions received every year in sales tax revenue. Unpaid incarcerated workers provide production labor for taxed goods purchased by state-owned businesses within Georgia’s “correctional industry.” Their unpaid labor is used by private contractors within supply chains that drive the tax revenue-contributing profits of private industries.
If our state were a country, Georgia would lock up more people per capita than any democracy on earth. This has an outsized impact on Black Georgians, who make up nearly 60 percent of those incarcerated in Georgia’s prisons, despite only making up 31 percent of the state population. Furthermore, with the nation’s highest probation rate, partially driven by the criminalization of individuals who cannot afford to pay court debts, Georgia incentivizes a nearly nation-leading number of its localities to serve as fines and fees debt traps to Georgians who experience poverty.
The methods in which Georgia allows and profits from forced unpaid or cheap labor have deep historic roots in 19th and 20th century practices. Today’s methods began with the convict leasing system that followed the Civil War, which was codified by the Georgia General Assembly through the Black Codes, and continued with the chain gang system that Georgia modeled in the 1890s and helped spread to other states. Georgia’s current prison system maintains much of the same captive labor and treatment towards incarcerated Georgians, who could face direct inhumane punishment including traumatizing solitary confinement, loss of visitation privileges or loss of commissary access, or less coercive methods such as work credits that could lead to earlier parole or release.
Supporters of unpaid labor for incarcerated Georgians may be indifferent towards, or even supportive of, this and other inhumane layers of Georgia’s carceral crisis, viewing it as a collateral consequence of legal conviction and resulting confinement. Others may see it as a workforce development tool that can aid in incarcerated Georgians’ employment after release. Those perspectives could also pair with the lack of political will to end captive labor because of the fiscal savings associated with it.
Viewed holistically, a principled argument for unpaid prison labor seems impossible to make. Unpaid prison labor undermines any policy goals that seek to remove layers of systemic racism, create a just criminal legal system or foster a more inclusive, economically mobile workforce with equitable opportunities for prosperity. Beginning with the state’s legal fabric that governs prison labor, incarcerated Georgians are only considered employees if they are employed for private gain, or if granted employee status by a county or municipal government.
This legality effectively bars them from any worker protections from the state.
More specifically, a state that fosters an unpaid prison labor system, while simultaneously taking steps to codify protections against human trafficking and raise revenue to aid its victims, shamefully fails to recognize the identical human liberties taken away by both human trafficking and unpaid prison labor. Also, fostering unpaid labor while simultaneously charging incarcerated Georgians for basic necessities, banking, healthcare, room and board, and countless other fees and charges, showcases Georgia’s priority for revenue and profiteering over public safety and rehabilitation.
Additionally, unpaid incarcerated workers face multiple workforce training barriers that must be removed before meaningful post-incarceration career pathways can be viable. These persistent and often racialized barriers are fortified by carceral policies that:
- Include no provisions that protect incarcerated workers from occupational segregation
- Provide no publicly available data on the demographic composition of prison job roles, by race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and disability status
- Fail to mandate formalized work training in prison
- Provide inadequate workplace protections against harassment, and
- Maintain occupational licensing barriers after release
Finally, incarcerated workers are excluded from any meaningful pathway to savings or retirement protections, as their work does not count toward credits for Social Security retirement benefits or worker’s compensation. This compounds upon the economic hardships that formerly incarcerated individuals typically experience before imprisonment. Therefore, when released, as a majority of them are at some point, they often end up in worse economic positions than when they enter.
While the latest Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) survey of incarcerated Americans found that 76 percent of them reported that they are required to work, this dynamic could be even more likely in Georgia, as it is one of seven states that pay no wages to incarcerated workers. In the face of an ongoing COVID pandemic that continues to plague Georgia’s prison and jail systems, and natural and human-created disasters that could be fatal, unpaid incarcerated Georgia workers:
- Contribute to a large share of prison operations, maintenance and construction;
- Are forced to serve as emergency responders;
- Work for private entities, which often subject them to dangerous conditions in industries including poultry plants and prison farms leaving many seriously or permanently injured or led to loss of life, and where there could be no limits to their daily work hours;
- Often receive no formal training that can offer career pathway opportunities after release;
- Are likely to have few to no choices in the type of unpaid labor they must perform, which also leaves room for racially biased work assignments.
Also, in tandem with the broader gap in disaggregated state-level workforce data, Georgia’s prison system does not provide any disaggregated data on its prison workforce. This leaves policymakers and the public largely unaware of occupational training program practices and outcomes as well as the demographics of incarcerated Georgians by occupation, including race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender and disability status. This data could shine a light on prison workforce conditions and trends. Such numbers would equip lawmakers and the general public to understand and define the connections between incarcerated labor, employment barriers and broader workforce outcomes among formerly incarcerated Georgians. Furthermore, it can aid policymakers in addressing the gaps in worker power that often impact returning Georgians.
Georgia must also equitably compensate incarcerated workers for their labor, whether they are performing work to help operate, maintain or construct state prison facilities, or performing labor that is part of contract agreements with outside public or private institutions. Their labor should also be counted towards Social Security, worker’s compensation and other social safety net programs that will better allow them to sustain themselves when they are released and reach retirement age.
Incarcerated workers should also have an equitable means towards redress for workplace injuries. Georgia is under federal OSHA jurisdiction; therefore, workplace safety violations can only be reported to a federal OSHA department. However, federal OSHA law excludes incarcerated workers from workplace safety protections. While reforms to close this gap in protection may be done at the federal level, Georgia could also establish state OSHA oversight and provide adequate protections for incarcerated workers as deserved by their civilian counterparts.
While a pet mantra is that Georgia is the “Number 1 State to Do Business,” Labor Day and what it stands for require us to go much further. Georgia should commit to investing in workers, especially those who have or are experiencing the criminal legal system. Fairly compensated work is a potential pathway to prosperity and dignified rehabilitation. We must cease using incarcerated labor as a weapon for inhumane punishment, exploitation or profiteering. Until Georgia lawmakers realize that correctional control and carceral abuse hurt all workers, we will continue to repeat the mistakes of the past, replicating racist harms that serve no one and cause lifelong damage to countless Georgians and the loved ones who support them.
 Dougherty, C. The cruel and unusual irony of prisoner work-related injuries in the United States. University of Pennsylvania Journal of Business and Employment Law, 10(2), 483-508 (page 506). Accessed September 1, 2022 at https://scholarship.law.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1305&context=jbl