When you think of inmates at work, you probably picture a ditch-digging chain gang or a bunch of orange jumpsuited thugs pounding out license plates. Truth is, today’s locked-up labor force produces a diverse and unexpected selection of everyday items that net around $500 million in sales every year.
It all started in 1934, when the US government implemented a system they hoped would reduce recidivism by equipping inmates with vocational skills that'd ease their transition back into everyday life. Under the aptly-named Federal Prison Industries (now known by the less scandalous-sounding Unicor), prisoners started to get paid a low wage to work (voluntarily) in penal factories manufacturing goods for the government.
Today, there are 109 Unicor prison factories, supplying an array of goods to the DOD, DOJ, USPS, and others. However, the recent push to bring manufacturing jobs back to the US has opened up opportunities for private sector to dip into the outrageously affordable labor pool, which is paid well below minimum wage—as little as $0.23 per hour in some cases.
Here’s a list of 13 products that are still handmade by convicts. And who knows, you might even be sitting on, or wearing, some of them right now.
1. Protective military gear
Responsible for 60% of its sales, the Department of Defense is actually Unicor's biggest customer. It's not too surprising when you consider inmates make a great deal of the goods that keep our armed forces safer on the battlefield. The government proudly states that they do everything from manufacture body armor to combat uniforms, and even retrofit big rigs and Humvees. Wired also reports that as recently as five years ago, prisoners played a big role in manufacturing Patriot missiles.
2. Law enforcement equipment
In what must be a painfully ironic day job, prisoners in Texas and Washington make tools of the trade for police officers. That includes duty belts, uniforms, target practice posters, and...handcuff cases. Ouch.
3. McDonald's uniforms
Although the Golden Arch Empire doesn't directly employ inmates, one of the companies they contracted to produce uniforms for their employees hired low-cost prison labor in Oregon to stitch and sew them.
The US government doesn't simply load up on office furniture at IKEA like the rest of us. Furniture actually accounts for some of Unicor's biggest business, and inmates all around the country get paid to make everything from office chairs and bookshelves to desks and filing cabinets for federal office buildings. Back in the '90s, it was even reported that Tipper Gore and Janet Reno prominently displayed chairs and tables that had been re-upholstered at a federal prison in Petersburg, Virginia.
5. Microsoft software packaging
Mother Jones reports that Exmark, one of the companies subcontracted by Microsoft in the '90s, hired inmates to package computer mice and software for the tech giant.
6. Honda car parts
The Japanese automaker has previously paid prison laborers $2 an hour to do the same work a civilian auto worker would do for roughly 10 or 15 times that much. Two bucks may sound low, but considering the average for behind-bars work, it's actually a very good wage.
7. Victoria's Secret lingerie
In the '90s, a subcontractor for the the Angel-making lingerie and leisure-wear brand hired 25 female inmates in South Carolina to stitch unmentionables.
In Kansas (and elsewhere), select inmates receive highly specialized dental technician training, and even make dentures that are given out to patients at safety net dental clinics.
9. JCPenney's blue jeans
In the past, subcontractors for both JCPenney and K-Mart used labor at prisons at Tennessee to fashion blue jeans for rock bottom wages.
10. All of their own stuff
When they aren't busy making things for other people, prisoners are also tasked with producing the uniforms, brooms, mattresses, and even toilets for themselves in the big house.
11. Call centers
While manufacturing work keeps most of Unicor's fleet of 13,000 prisoners busy, there are a growing number of inmate-staffed call centers helping to lessen the customer service burden for both government and private sector businesses. In New York state, for example, when you call the DMV with a question, you may well be speaking with an inmate hired by the agency to field phone inquiries. Companies like Microsoft and Hitachi have also reaped the benefits of prisoner call centers by outsourcing some of their more tedious corporate marketing-related work.
12. Starbucks packaging
The coffee giant has admitted that at least one of its contractors—Signature Packaging Solutions—employed inmates in Washington state to make some of their holiday merchandise. Specifically, the laborers put together brightly colored Christmas-themed bags of chocolate-covered coffee beans.
13. Copious amounts of processed meat
While many prisons operate their own farms for self-sufficiency reasons, some also process food for the public. For instance, in Florida, the organization that operates the state's 41 inmate work programs boasts that its food processing division processes tons of beef, chicken, and pork for a number of unnamed retail and "institutional" accounts.
Joe McGauley is a senior editor at Supercompressor, and is willing to bet the DMV's locked-up employees are more pleasant than their civilian ones.