A sweeping Associated Press investigation into prison labor in the United States found that prisoners who are hurt or killed on the job are often being denied the rights and protections offered to other American workers.

These prisoners are being placed in dangerous jobs, sometimes with little or no training. They pick up trash along busy highways, fight wildfires, and operate heavy machinery. They work on industrial-sized farms and meat-processing plants tied to the supply chains of some of the world’s most iconic brands and companies. But incarcerated workers and their families often have little or no recourse when things go wrong.

The report on the dangers of prison labor is part of a wider AP investigation into what has become a multibillion-dollar industry that often operates with little oversight.

This 2015 photo shows first responders as they work to free Blas Sanchez from an auger that snagged and mutilated his right leg, at Hickman’s Family Farms, in Tonopah, Ariz. Nationwide, prisoners are increasingly being placed in dangerous jobs, sometimes with little or no training. They are part of a labor system that, often by design, largely denies them basic rights and protections guaranteed to other American workers. (Photo: AP/Provided by Blas Sanchez)

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


Laws in some states spell it out clearly: Prisoners aren’t classified as employees, whether they’re working inside correctional facilities or for private businesses through prison contracts or work-release programs.

That can exclude them from workers’ compensation benefits, along with state and federal workplace safety standards. They cannot protest against poor conditions, form unions or strike, and it’s harder for them to sue. Some also can be punished for refusing to work, including being sent to solitary confinement. And many work for pennies an hour – or nothing at all.

AP reporters spoke with more than 100 current and former prisoners nationwide about their experiences with prison labor, along with family members of workers who were killed. About a quarter of them related stories involving injuries or deaths, from severe burns and traumatic head wounds to severed body parts.

It’s almost impossible to know how many incarcerated workers are hurt or killed each year, the AP found, partly due to privacy laws but also because prisoners often don’t report injuries, fearing retaliation or losing privileges like contact with their families.

Chicken barns are seen at Hickman’s Family Farm and egg-packaging operations in Tonopah, Ariz., Thursday, March 14, 2024. In many states, prisoners are denied everything from disability benefits to protections guaranteed by OSHA or state agencies that ensure safe and healthy conditions for laborers. In Arizona, for instance, the state occupational safety division doesn’t have the authority to pursue cases involving inmate deaths or injuries. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)


Prisoners work in poultry plants, sawmills and in industrial factories. In many states, laws mandate that they be deployed during disasters and emergencies for dangerous jobs like hazardous material cleanup. They’re also sent to fight fires, filling vital worker shortage gaps, including in some rural communities in Georgia where incarcerated firefighters are paid nothing as the sole responders for everything from car wrecks to medical emergencies.

California, Nevada, Arizona and several other states also deploy prisoners to fight wildfires.

Prisoners who are injured on the job and decide to sue can face nearly insurmountable hurdles, including finding a lawyer willing to take the case. That’s especially true after the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act was passed almost three decades ago to stem a flood of lawsuits that accompanied booming prison populations.

Inmate firefighter David Clary, 41, with the Mount Gleason Conservation Camp 16, walks down a steep hill after eight hours of fighting a wildfire in the Angeles National Forest near Azusa, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 5, 2009. California currently has about 1,250 prisoners trained to fight fires and has used them since the 1940s. It pays its «Angels in Orange» $2.90 to $5.12 a day, plus an extra $1 an hour when they work during emergencies. (Photo: AP/Jae C. Hong, File)

Michael Duff, a law professor at Saint Louis University and an expert on labor law, said an entire 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 said.


Today, nearly 2 million people are locked up in the U.S. – more than almost any country in the world – a number that began spiking in the 1980s when tough-on-crime laws were passed. More than 800,000 prisoners have some kind of job, from serving food inside facilities to working outside for private companies, including work-release assignments everywhere from Burger King to Tyson Foods poultry plants. They’re also employed at state and municipal agencies, and at colleges and nonprofit organizations.

And it’s all legal: A loophole in the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution passed after the Civil War makes forced labor legal, abolishing slavery except “as punishment for a crime.”

Diesel mechanic Johnny Reyes, 40, a former gang member who says he is serving a 364 day sentence in the Brevard County jail for burglary and violating probation, does maintenance on landscaping equipment in a workshop at the Sheriff’s Work Farm, in Cocoa, Fla., Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023. Participation in Brevard County’s various work crews, including a chain gang where participants wear chains around their ankles, is unpaid and voluntary. (Photo: AP/Rebecca Blackwell)

Few critics believe all prison jobs should be eliminated, but say work should be voluntary and that prisoners should be fairly paid and treated humanely. Correctional officials and others running work programs across the country respond that they place a heavy emphasis on training and that injuries are taken seriously. And many prisoners see work as a welcome break from boredom and violence inside their facilities.


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