Findings from AP's Investigation Into How U.S. Prisoners Are Injured or Killed on the Job - Latest Global News

Findings from AP’s Investigation Into How U.S. Prisoners Are Injured or Killed on the Job

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

These prisoners are employed in dangerous jobs, sometimes with little or no training. They collect trash along busy highways, fight forest fires and operate heavy machinery. They work on industrial-scale farms and meat processing plants connected to the supply chains of some of the world’s most recognizable brands and companies. But incarcerated workers and their families often have little or no recourse when things go wrong.

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The report on the dangers of prison labor is part of a broader AP investigation into what has become a multibillion-dollar industry that is often poorly monitored.

Here are insights from the latest episode of the AP investigation:

Prisoners are among the most vulnerable workers in the United States

Some states’ laws make this clear: prisoners are not classified as employees, whether they work in correctional facilities or under prison contracts or work-release programs for private companies.

This can result in their exclusion from workers’ compensation benefits and state and federal workplace safety standards. They cannot protest the poor conditions, form unions or strike, and it is more difficult for them to file lawsuits. Some may also be punished for refusing to work, including being placed in solitary confinement. And many work for pennies an hour – or nothing at all.

AP reporters spoke to more than 100 current and former prisoners across the country about their experiences with prison labor, as well as to family members of slain workers. About a quarter of them reported injuries or deaths, from severe burns and traumatic head wounds to severed body parts.

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

Dangerous jobs, little or no training

Prisoners work in poultry factories, sawmills and industrial plants. Laws in many states require them to be used during disasters and emergencies for hazardous work such as hazardous material disposal. They are also deployed to fight fires, filling key gaps in labor shortages, including in some rural Georgia communities where incarcerated firefighters are not paid as sole responders to everything from car accidents to medical emergencies.

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

Inmates who are injured at work and decide to file a lawsuit can face nearly insurmountable hurdles, including finding an attorney willing to take the case. This is especially true following the passage of the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act nearly three decades ago to stem the flood of lawsuits that accompanied rising prison populations.

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Michael Duff, a law professor at Saint Louis University and an expert in labor law, said an entire segment of society is being denied civil rights.

“We are dealing with this category of people who can be harmed unjustly and yet be left with no remedy for the harm,” he said.


Today, nearly two million people are incarcerated in the United States – more than almost any other country in the world – a number that skyrocketed in the 1980s with the passage of tougher crime laws. More than 800,000 prisoners have some kind of job, from serving food in facilities to working outdoors for private companies, including work releases everywhere from Burger King to Tyson Foods’ poultry plants. They are also employed by state and local governments, as well as universities 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 and abolishes slavery except “as punishment for a crime.”

Few critics believe that all prison jobs should be eliminated, but they say the work should be voluntary and that prisoners should be paid fairly and treated humanely. Corrections officers and others who run work programs across the country respond that they place a high value on training and that injuries are taken seriously. And many prisoners see the work as a welcome relief from the boredom and violence in their facilities.


The Associated Press receives support from the Public Welfare Foundation for reporting focused on criminal justice. This story was also supported by Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights in collaboration with Arnold Ventures. The AP is solely responsible for all content.


Contact AP’s global investigative team at Investigative↕ or

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