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Workin' for the Man
Victoria Law

At the Robert Scott Correctional Facility in Plymouth, Mich., Kebby Warner waited almost five years for a job. During that time, her request for parole was turned down twice. The reason? She didn’t have a job.

Although there are 96 women on her unit, there are only 15 jobs available. Once an inmate is placed on a job, she must work at least 90 days. If she is fired or quits before then, she is forced to stay in her cell for 30 days and risks being ticketed for “Disobeying a Direct Order” or being “Out of Place.”The hourly pay scale on her unit ranges from 74¢ to $2.08. Those who work in food service earn even less: 17.5¢ to 32.5¢ an hour.Despite the lack of jobs and poor working conditions, the parole board holds unemployment against applicants.

While the prison-industrial complex has attracted much criticism and protest in recent years, the lack of jobs and poor working conditions of women prisoners have yet to garner much attention. Almost 100,000 women are now incarcerated in the United States, representing about 7 percent of all inmates — a 42 percent increase since 1995.

However, female prisoners are speaking out, arguing that gender-based economic inequality does not stop at the prison gate. Indeed, incarcerated women have significantly less access to jobs than male prisoners. When they are able to find work, it is often undesirable. They are often paid less, and not given necessary training. Their male counterparts have access to better jobs and better wages.

At the Women’s Correctional Center in Salem, Ore., inmate Barrilee Bannister said, “Most jobs are not available to women prisoners.” Many women there said that if they work, they are given jobs considered “feminine,” such as cooking, cleaning, clerking, or teaching.

Until 1996, the Oregon prison offered its inmates the opportunity to work in its corporate division. Inmates answered phone calls from people on the outside requesting business information. However, in 1996, the division was transferred to one of the male prisons, leaving women inmates with prison jobs that paid anywhere from $8 to $84 a month.

Oregon’s male prisoners also do the same types of work but, for the most part, men’s prisons have more job choice. The state’s Measure Seventeen mandates that all prisoners work; but male inmates have access to jobs which provide them with skills such as small engine repair, cabinetry, welding, furniture making, plumbing, and computer programming. They also have the opportunity to work for the clothing manufacturer Prison Blues, which, after deducting incarceration costs, victim restitution, family support, and taxes, pays about $1.30 an hour.Women prisoners have been excluded from this opportunity.

Twelve hundred miles away, at the women’s section of the Colorado Women’s Correctional Facility in Canon City, Colo., inmates fare little better. All prisoners are required to either work or attend school. Until February 2002, the daily pay rates ranged from 63¢ to $2.53 for jobs such as kitchen, laundry, housekeeping, maintenance, library, secretary, and GED teacher. InmateDawn Amos earned 63¢ for each of the four days she worked scrubbing and buffing the floors. The prison lowered wages further in March 2002.

The prices in Canon City’s canteen do not reflect the women’s income and purchasing power. One generic Tylenol costs 40¢; a box of tampons cost $3.60; the cheapest soap available is the equivalent of a day’s earnings—63¢. There are no free items.

Women at Canon City have virtually no job mobility. “If you want to leave a job for another one, it doesn’t mean you can. It all depends on if your boss wants to let you go or not,” Amos said. Thus, efficiency on one job can work against the ability to transfer to another.

In some prisons, work environments resemble sweatshops. At the Dwight Correctional Center in Dwight, Illin., the prison pays female seamstresses by the piece. According to “Elsie,” an inmate there who wishes to remain anonymous, “Women rushing to make the cut-off day have injured themselves on sewing machines — sewing their fingers.” The average monthly pay is $15 to $20 for 40 hours of work.

In some prisons, there is even more risk of injury. At the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, Yolanda, an inmate who had grown up in Los Angeles, was assigned to work on the prison’s farm. Despite the fact that she had never been on a farm, she received no training for her job. Shortly after she began, her head was run over by a tractor by another inmate, who had also never received training. Although she survived, both women were disciplined.

In addition to the low pay and hazardous working conditions, female facilities seldom offer coveted jobs working for large corporations. (Although prison activists often complain about corporations’ use of prison labor, these jobs tend to pay more than internal prison work.) The Central California Women’s Facility is one of the few exceptions. Inmates there have the opportunity to work assembly-line jobs putting together equipment for Joint Venture Electronics, an electronics manufacturer. After standard deductions for taxes, room and board, victim restitution, savings for release, and family support, these women earn about $1.15 to $2.30 an hour. Compared to a daily 63¢, this paycheck is considered high.

The lack of jobs has been used to keep women inmates from complaining about prison conditions. Shortly after filing a grievance against a male officer, Warner, the Michigan inmate, was assaulted by a co-worker at her job in the library. Although Warner was the victim of the assault, she was terminated from her position “for the safety and security of the institution.” Similarly, Bannister, the Oregon inmate, said prison officials fired her from her position as visiting room photographer in 2002 after she reported a male officer’s sexual harassment

However, women prisoners have been fighting back in ways large and small. One anonymous inmate in Texas, a state which requires all inmates to work without pay, refused her assignment. “I refuse to work,” she said. “I have sat down and quit doing prison altogether.” Oregon inmate Laura Maca not only quit her job as visiting room photographer, but also wrote an exposé about a controversial prison policy.

Despite these protests, the “industry” in women’s prisons has garnered little or no attention, let alone outcry, from outside groups and organizations. Those doing research and work around prison issues and labor issues need to examine the ways in which their neglect and dismissal of labor conditions within women’s facilities adds to the silencing and invisibility of women prisoners and their issues. 

Further Reading:

Juanita Diaz-Cotto. Gender, Ethnicity, and the State: Latina and Latino Prison Politics. SUNY Press. 1996.

Karlene Faith. Unruly Women: The Politics of Confinement and Resistance. Press Gang. 1993.

Nancy Kurshan. Women and Imprisonment in the U.S.: History and Current Reality.

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