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.