Takeaways from the AP’s investigation into how US prisoners are harm or killed on the job

May 16, 2024 | blog

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A sweeping Associated Press investigation into jail labor within the United States discovered that prisoners who’re harm or killed on the job are sometimes being denied the rights and protections provided to different American staff.

These prisoners are being positioned in harmful jobs, generally with little or no coaching. They choose up trash alongside busy highways, struggle wildfires, and function heavy equipment. They work on industrial-sized farms and meat-processing vegetation tied to the availability chains of a number of the world’s most iconic manufacturers and corporations. But incarcerated staff and their households typically have little or no recourse when issues go incorrect.

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The report on the risks of jail labor is a part of a wider AP investigation into what has grow to be a multibillion-dollar business that usually operates with little oversight.

Here are takeaways from the newest installment of AP’s investigation:


Laws in some states spell it out clearly: Prisoners aren’t categorised as workers, whether or not they’re working inside correctional services or for personal companies by way of jail contracts or work-release packages.

That can exclude them from staff’ compensation advantages, together with state and federal office security requirements. They can not protest in opposition to poor circumstances, type unions or strike, and it’s tougher for them to sue. Some additionally could be punished for refusing to work, together with being despatched to solitary confinement. And many work for pennies an hour — or nothing in any respect.

AP reporters spoke with greater than 100 present and former prisoners nationwide about their experiences with jail labor, together with relations of staff who had been killed. About 1 / 4 of them associated tales involving accidents or deaths, from extreme burns and traumatic head wounds to severed physique elements.

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It’s nearly unattainable to know what number of incarcerated staff are harm or killed annually, the AP discovered, partly attributable to privateness legal guidelines but additionally as a result of prisoners typically don’t report accidents, fearing retaliation or shedding privileges like contact with their households.


Prisoners work in poultry vegetation, sawmills and in industrial factories. In many states, legal guidelines mandate that they be deployed throughout disasters and emergencies for harmful jobs like hazardous materials cleanup. They’re additionally despatched to struggle fires, filling very important employee scarcity gaps, together with in some rural communities in Georgia the place incarcerated firefighters are paid nothing as the only real responders for all the pieces from automobile wrecks to medical emergencies.

California, Nevada, Arizona and a number of other different states additionally deploy prisoners to struggle wildfires.

Prisoners who’re injured on the job and resolve to sue can face almost insurmountable hurdles, together with discovering a lawyer prepared to take the case. That’s very true after the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act was handed nearly three a long time in the past to stem a flood of lawsuits that accompanied booming jail populations.

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Michael Duff, a regulation professor at Saint Louis University and an knowledgeable on labor regulation, mentioned a complete class of society is being denied civil rights.

“We’ve got this category of human beings that can be wrongfully harmed and yet left with no remedy for their harm,” he mentioned.


Today, almost 2 million individuals are locked up within the U.S. — greater than nearly any nation on this planet — a quantity that started spiking within the Nineteen Eighties when tough-on-crime legal guidelines had been handed. More than 800,000 prisoners have some form of job, from serving meals inside services to working exterior for personal firms, together with work-release assignments all over the place from Burger King to Tyson Foods poultry vegetation. They’re additionally employed at state and municipal companies, and at faculties and nonprofit organizations.

And it’s all authorized: A loophole within the thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution handed after the Civil War makes compelled labor authorized, abolishing slavery besides “as punishment for a crime.”

Few critics imagine all jail jobs ought to be eradicated, however say work ought to be voluntary and that prisoners ought to be pretty paid and handled humanely. Correctional officers and others operating work packages throughout the nation reply that they place a heavy emphasis on coaching and that accidents are taken critically. And many prisoners see work as a welcome break from boredom and violence inside their services.


The Associated Press receives help from the Public Welfare Foundation for reporting centered on felony justice. This story additionally was supported by Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights at the side of Arnold Ventures. The AP is solely chargeable for all content material.


Contact AP’s international investigative crew at Investigative↕ or

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