Principles of less eligibility: The human cost of prison labor PART I


Jesse, an inmate whose name has been changed for his safety, began his incarceration in 2006 initially working as a baker for 25 cents an hour in St. Cloud. He later got a job pressing license plates for 50 cents an hour. During yet another job in prison folding and packaging balloons, Jesse noticed the balloons were being transported and sold by Anagram. While getting paid pennies on the dollar, his labor was being exploited for corporate profit. He said he came to understand that the entire prison labor system as “silent violence”. Reflecting on getting his first paycheck, Jesse says, “ain’t been robbed till I went to prison.”

While the products and services that inmates render are valuable to the state for its revenue, the inmates themselves are devalued. As inmates, they have been convicted of a crime (although whether convictions are justly given is up for debate) and sentenced to prison.

But once they are converted from civilians to inmates, by law, they do not possess the very labor done by their own hands.

Throughout the last year, Alisha Volante, a prison rights activist, began organizing with Ezekiel “Zeke” Caligiuri and 50 other inmates and their families around prison conditions and wages through her former employer Voices for Racial Justice. Like Jesse, Zeke has worked countless jobs at numerous facilities during the last 19 years of his 22-year sentence he’s currently serving. Volante’s continued advocacy and support, now done independently, draws attention to the injustices these inmates face.

For Volante, any fight for fair wages is lacking if the conversation excludes prison laborers. She noted that one of the reasons why this happens is the ingrained bias against anyone labeled “criminal.”

“If we don’t talk about inmate laborers as part of our discussions of poverty and exploitation, we lose sight of the structure,” Volante said.


Public systems of labor, rooted in slavery

The origin of the industrialized public prison industry – both nationally and in Minnesota – can trace its lineage through slavery and into the very foundation of the United States. The 13th amendment legalized the leasing of convict labor and many other labor schemes to maintain systems of control over Black men and women in the years after the Civil War.

Convict leasing schemes emerged as a focal point during the Reconstruction Era in the South. Newly freed slaves were absorbed into a workforce that resembled slavery. Often, convicted of petty crimes such as vagrancy, they were leased to private companies for the entirety of their sentence. These companies were responsible for housing, feeding and clothing inmates. The postwar rebuilding of Atlanta was aided tremendously by the 300,000 bricks convict laborers produced for Chattachooche Brick. Inmates were regularly starved and beaten. Those who died over the course of this work were incinerated, erasing any evidence. By 1898 in Alabama convict leasing accounted for 73 percent of state revenues. Convict leasing was outlawed nationwide by 1941 with most states outlawing it outright much earlier. Instead of leasing convicts, labor programs transitioned to behind prison walls by the late 20th century.

Inside prisons, starting in the 1870s in Richmond, Virginia, convict labor was central to the local barrel manufacture industry. Prior to being imprisoned en masse, enslaved Black men fabricated these barrels on plantations. These men had their lives and skills transferred from the whip of the slavemaster to the confinement and control of the state prison. Since Minnesota’s founding as a state in 1858, prison laborers played an invisible, yet central role in the development of Minnesota as a regional economic hub. In the early years, inmates manufactured twine and agricultural implements.

Nationally, several lawsuits have been filed intending to challenge the use of prison labor. In particular, cases have tried to apply the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in defense of prison laborers. FLSA was part of sweeping legislation in 1938, designed to guard against the unfettered labor abuses of the pre-Depression era. Notably, the bill banned child labor. FLSA set national minimum wage standards and workplace protections for private industry and government workers. A 1994 Minnesota District Court case, McMASTER v. STATE OF MINN, ruled that since prison work is a condition of incarceration, convict laborers are not workers. Therefore inmates are not entitled to federal and state labor protections. In 1999, when Zeke was first incarcerated, the federal minimum wage for civilians was $5.15 per hour. Zeke’s starting wage in Minnesota prisons was 25 cents per hour.


Minnesota prison shop assembly area circa 1956. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.


The Minnesota Line of farm equipment, made by prison laborers, would take over as the predominant industry until the mid-1980s, ending officially in 2006. Having left industrial production the Minnesota prison labor industry transitioned to manual, highly repetitive work, leaving most inmates with few marketable skills. Without such skills, upon release these formerly incarcerated workers were funneled into low wage labor or unemployment. Simultaneously, incarceration and recidivism rates for Black men increased.

In the prison system, tasks that are manual “unskilled” labor frequently lead to unsafe work conditions. When a workforce – like one made up of inmates – is viewed as an expendable commodity, that workforce’s well-being can be taken for granted with no legal grounds for recourse. In May 2014 the Stillwater Prison welding shop was shut down for a week because of test results revealing that the number of chemicals in the air exceeded safe exposure limits. A November 2015 inmate interview conducted by members of the Minnesota chapter of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee with an inmate named Sean, whose name has been changed for his safety, proved to be revealing. The inmate labored as a welder and described ongoing poor air quality attributed to a lack of ventilation despite promises to remedy airflow. He found himself ”always blowing a bloody nose.” According to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), hexavalent chromium can be released through fumes emanating “from welding stainless steel or nonferrous chromium alloys.” Possible side effects include a burning sensation in the respiratory system, nosebleeds and damage to the eye and skin and even lung cancer.

Poor working conditions for inmates are not confined to welding. Prison facilities and the MINNCOR facility in Roseville fulfills balloon packaging contracts for Anagram. Former inmate Elijah Combs described the space as resembling a sweatshop with low light, no windows and poor ventilation that led to smells that resembled a gymnasium. Combs shared a sentiment that many incarcerated workers have, saying that he enjoyed having a job and, “appreciated the wages, but saw the exploitation.”


Lack of rehab and ‘tough on crime’ policies give prisons more laborers

University of Minnesota Professor Michelle Phelps is a scholar on the sociology of punishment and an affiliate faculty member with the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice. Phelps noted that nationwide, the 1990s meant mass restrictions for inmates, for example, limiting access to academic programs. Phelps said data indicates that “if we invested a lot more on higher education inside and outside we would have a different pattern of recidivism.” Noted professors and scholars on prisons Bruce Western and Betty Petti furthermore argued: “Most of the growth in incarceration rates is concentrated at the very bottom, among young men with very low levels of education.”

Phelps pointed out that the “principle of less eligibility” explains why it’s politically justifiable to have reduced access to prison programming. The principle, which is rooted in Victorian-era English law, noted that a prison laborer should not live and work in better conditions than a poor person living freely. Accordingly, the mass restrictions in Minnesota prisons throughout the 1990s mirrored the austerity happening outside prison walls.



In practice, Phelps explained, “Because it’s so hard for middle-class Americans to go to college, there is resistance for financial incentives for college access programs [within prisons].” Specifically, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, withdrew Pell Grant eligibility from people in prison. Without this funding source, universities across the country reduced their presence in prisons. Thus, education within the prison system today is largely focused on soft-skill training programs for labor-intensive projects that aren’t highly skilled nor high-paying.


Zeke’s interest in writing had always been a part of his life. His talent only grew through a college education program that his mother, Pam Caliguri, set up for him after the Department of  Corrections (DOC) reduced college-level coursework. For Zeke, the writing process helped him appreciate how to come to terms with the destruction and harm he has caused.

Zeke has been in custody in Minnesota prisons since 1999. At 22 years old he pled guilty to second-degree murder. In the late evening of Sept. 26, 1999, Tony Burgess age 21, Zeke and Waleed M. Hasan, age 23, met together with the intention of robbing homes. Edwin Isaacson, 50, was their second target. He was a small time pot dealer known to both Zeke and Burgess. Burgess struck him in the head five times with a rifle butt. All three left Isaacson tied up, bleeding and injured as the robbing spree extended to a third home. A friend found Isaacson incapacitated and immediately called the police. As police approached all three assailants fled. Initially, only Zeke was caught. Burgess was eventually convicted of first-degree murder, Hasan was convicted of second-degree murder along with Zeke.

“I was never proud of what I did,” Zeke said of his crime. “[Writing] helped to see myself as a human being to understand what I had done. I was too young then to understand.”

By his own admission, Zeke is no longer a young man. He is disarming and pensive especially when reflecting on the violent nature of his crime. Clinical in his knowledge and assessment of the prison system, his slight frame can’t disguise his now permanent slouch. Zeke’s father died while he was in custody and it was now up to Pam to play the dual role of advocate and emotional support.

Through the writing program, Zeke was able to produce award-winning writing which culminated in his critically-acclaimed book, “This Is Where I Am: A Memoir.” The book’s launch party was held at the Loft Literary Center in downtown Minneapolis on Oct. 24, 2016. At least two people close to Zeke have told him that DOC Commissioner Tom Roy said he brings copies of Zeke’s memoir to conferences as evidence of the possibility of rehabilitation in prison. Pam said she believed Zeke’s rehabilitation was a process he did completely on his own, especially through his writing – not through anything that DOC provided for him.

Before being sent to Goodhue County Jail, Zeke got a job mentoring other inmates on their writing. At the time, he was excited to have an opportunity to support others in finding their voice the way he had. Zeke lost all that after he was transferred.

In 2015, the Minnesota Legislature’s Prison Population Task Force studied the correlation between harshening sentencing guidelines and increases to the number of beds the state needed in its prison system. Graphic courtesy of the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission.


The 1990s saw a sharp increase in the incarcerated population owed to “tough on crime” approaches – both at the state and federal levels. Punitive measures focused on drug use and sales with disproportionate and highly racialized minimum sentencing laws. In 2015, the Minnesota Legislature’s Prison Population Task Force studied the correlation between harshening sentencing guidelines and increases to the number of beds the state needed in its prison system. From 1992 to 2015, the changes to sentencing guidelines that led to the biggest increases in prison beds were drug or DWI related. Who filled those beds? As the Council on Crime and Justice reported, more than twice as many African American males are arrested for drug laws than white males.

Punitive sentences impacted communities of color disproportionately as the prison populations swelled. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit researching mass criminalization, in Minnesota in the early 1990s the incarcerated population was roughly 70 percent white, while the general population outside of prison was 94 percent white. By 2001, whites were 49.4 percent of the prison population in a state with an 88 percent white population. By contrast, Native Americans only made up 1.4 percent of the total state population, but 6.8 percent of Minnesota’s prison population in 2001. That same year, Blacks made up 3.7 percent of the total state population, but 36.4 percent of Minnesota’s prison population. These statistics reflect persistent and systemic racial inequity. At the time, Minnesota had the highest racial disparity in its prison population in the country, where a Black man was nearly 27 times more likely to be in prison than a white man.

Current data indicates that nationally Minnesota has the fourth highest disparity between Black and white inmates. Within Minnesota, Native Americans have the highest rate of incarceration. The impact has been devastating for these communities. Harvard professor, and a leading scholar on U.S. incarceration, Dr. Bruce Westen argues, “Mass imprisonment has erased many of the gains to African American citizenship hard won by the civil rights movement.”


Graphic courtesy of the Prison Policy Initiative.


‘Equalizing’ wages

Writing in the Stillwater Prison’s winning newspaper Prison Mirror, investigative journalist and inmate Matt Gretz showed that by the late 1980s the typical inmate could make $2 an hour compared to the U.S. minimum wage of $3.35 an hour. The low wages of the current system were codified under 1993’s Unified Pay Plan, DOC’s internal policy that determines general compensation for adult offenders. In many instances, hourly pay was slashed from $1.50 to 40 cents after the plan was put in place.

DOC officials argued that the Unified Pay Plan had been misunderstood. In an interview with DOC Deputy Commissioner Ron Solheid and District Supervisor Terry Byrne, Solheid explained that prior to the Unified Pay Plan:

“Everybody was all over the map with how much they were paying them. And so it was like, well, if I can get this job, then I can make more money in Faribault than at Lino Lakes. The kitchens were finding they were having trouble attracting inmates into the program… The pay scale was only 25 to 50 cents an hour, or whatever it was, so they were not getting folks that were interested or motivated in working. So, at that time they said we have to have a coordinated system so it’s fair and equitable to everybody. If you are doing a kitchen job at one facility or another it’s all the same and it’s not so tilted one way or the other because then you have no one working in food service.”

After he was asked a direct question about wages declining precipitously, Solheid argued, “I wouldn’t say that it so much dropped it more equalized.”

At the end of the decade, starting pay further declined from 40 cents to 25 cents. Solheid further defended pay gouging, arguing:

“Ultimately, the individuals on our work crews in most cases are saving money. Because if you are working 40 hours a week at a buck and a half an hour you are getting what, $60 a week? Food, clothing, shelter, medical care are all provided. Transportation to and from the job is all provided. They aren’t buying tools, equipment, safety clothing. That’s all paid for by the program. So that’s kind of that balancing, how do we make this self-sustaining and self-supporting. It’s not using taxpayer dollars, it’s using dollars from, in a sense, the cities or whatever you know but they are getting a lot of value back.”

However, inmates do pay into some of the services Solheid described, leading to substantially lower take-home or net pay. The categories for which DOC deducts pay include court-ordered restitution, cost of confinement, facility obligations and unpaid medical co-payments, federal and state filing fees, court-ordered fines and disciplinary restitution.

According to MINNCOR internal data from July –September 2016, 77 percent of wages were deducted, approximately half of which went to “cost of confinement.” These reductions mean that inmates are legally obligated to pay for their time served and the conditions that set up their own exploitation.

Defenders of inmate labor programs often emphasize restitution as a good reason to have men work since it is money, “paid by the offender/resident to compensate for the victim’s losses.” However, the lion share of earnings goes to “cost of confinement,” essentially room and board.

For one unnamed inmate, working 39 hours a week for 50 cents an hour, he made $19.50 but only took home $9.74. More than half his pay went to MINNCOR deductions. The remaining $9.74 was barely enough to cover grooming and hygiene products purchased through the canteen, also owned by MINNCOR.


Pay stub of one anonymous Minnesota prison inmate. Photo by the contributor.


Currently, the top of the inmate pay scale can even get to $2 per hour, but those jobs are limited. If inmates are moved among facilities or start a new job, they lose that pay rate and resume work at the bottom of the scale. Increasing the wage scale of all inmates is not a possibility according to Solheid:

“For the programs that we have whether it’s MINNCOR, the Bridge Program, they have to be self-sustaining, self-supportive. So when we send a crew out to work in one of these cities or counties doing that work, we have to charge them for the employee who is out there as well as all the tools, the equipment and everything and that has to pay for itself. If we had to try to charge higher wages to pay the participants higher wages I don’t know that we would have much of a market.”

In addition to the numerous levies and deductions to inmates’ pay, 10 percent is deducted from money they receive from outside the prison system.

Minnesota inmates who are lucky enough to work on products or services sold via interstate commerce are paid more competitive wages at or above the federal civilian minimum wage, due to federal law. However, up to 80 percent of their wages can still be deducted for room and board, dramatically reducing net pay due to the Federal Prison Industry Enhancement Certificate Program. According to the program’s statistical reports for the quarter ending March 31, 2017, interstate commerce workers in Minnesota prisons have 74 percent of wages devoted to deductions, two-thirds of which are room and board.



In March 1996, a MINNCOR worker strike erupted in Minnesota. More than 150 striking workers protested lowered wages and demanded increases. Since then, not much has changed. On Sept. 9, 2016, in response to the 25th anniversary of the Attica Prison uprising, a coordinated prison strike emerged nationally through the Free Alabama Movement and the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee. The 2016 strike originated in Alabama and Texas, with reports identifying national expansion. Reflecting on such protests, Solheid said:

“I think, it’s unfortunate in that I think a lot of folks feel that the prison labor is slave labor or what have you. Frankly, all of these programs, work release, all the work crews, it’s voluntary. You aren’t compelled… you don’t have to participate if you don’t want to. I think most of the folks that do participate in it get a lot out of it. I think also even with the MINNCOR jobs, our prison industries, they get a lot of good skills.”

In response, Volante argued that inmates have narrow choices. Many are drawn to work crews because they are furnished with street clothing. For MINNCOR, the sanctioned outfits are designed to hide them in plain sight, obscuring the expansive presence of prison labor in the day-to-day life of the public. Volante reminds us that these outfits give inmates the sense they are human beings, in contrast to their marked prison clothing.

“They just want to feel like a human being again. They want to present a person that will elicit respect. It is hard to do that when you have an elastic waistband,” Volante said.

Zeke agreed with Volante’s assessment. “You have to play the game,” he said. “If you don’t work, not only are you not making money but you are potentially stuck in your cell 20 to 22 hours a day.” He pointed out that those that didn’t work were negatively referred to as “Unauthorized Idle.”


Advocating for the invisible

Maintaining an awareness of invisible prison laborers helps to show and clarify how the most vulnerable in our society are rarely heard and considered. Pam did her best to make sure that Zeke was never invisible; Zeke had an outlet to talk about both what was happening in prison and how he would rehabilitate. But most inmates don’t have that sort of opportunity or advocacy.

Pam is well known among prison administrators and staff. She has written countless letters, made endless calls and attended most hearings at the state Capitol when DOC officials interact with the legislature. In the winter of 2003, Zeke needed a new set of glasses but his prescription was expired. The first challenge was seeing an optometrist since there are none on site. It took several weeks for Zeke to get an updated prescription. Afterward, for 12 weeks Pam attempted to track down a company that would ship glasses to incarcerated men. When Zeke finally received the new glasses from his mom he was told they would be destroyed because their value exceeded the threshold for mailed items.

Pam drove directly to Stillwater Prison. Maneuvering through a panicked clerical worker she barged into the warden’s office sitting in a chair declaring, “They will have to pick this chair up and drag me out of here!” Her impromptu civil disobedience proved effective as she got home and received a call from Zeke surprised that he had received his glasses.

Pam mentioned that after the ordeal, a prison employee told her, “You have got to stop being his mother, these men have to fight their own battles” to which Pam responded, “Don’t you ever tell me to not be his mother.”

Most inmates don’t have a force like Pam at their disposal. “Once you are in for awhile it’s hard to hold onto your friendships and have people advocating for you. Most folks don’t have these resources. A lot of folks have nothing,” Volante said. Volante organizes exclusively by phone and email which she knows is closely monitored, minimizing the opportunity for the inmates she works with to be honest about their experiences on the inside. Fear of retaliation is a common anxiety among the inmates that Volante works with. Pam’s consistent advocacy was also a source of concern, as she had been fearful of the attention she was drawing to Zeke.

The stress and the stakes of this work is the kind that can take its toll. Pam had been missing calls and meetings, so one day in late summer Volante went to her apartment to check on the older woman’s condition. On Saturday, Aug. 23, Volante found Pam’s body, lifeless, in her bathroom. The shock of Pam’s sudden death was a major blow to family, advocates and those close to Zeke. With no living relatives, Zeke must now depend on the kindness and solidarity of the relationships he has built over the years and the infrastructure of support that Pam created for her only child.

Inmates like Zeke are made invisible with little recognition of the persistence of their labor all over Minnesota. What Pam, Zeke and Volante had come to terms with is that the DOC has a monopoly over the bodies of incarcerated men, what their wages are and what they can purchase. This monopoly is wielded to fulfill state law requiring MINNCOR to be financially self-sustaining. In turn, the drive for revenue and the invisibility of the incarcerated conceal the reality that some of the biggest entities in the state.