18 Surprising Products Made by Prisoners

For decades, companies looking to cut labor costs have been turning to a source of nearly unlimited cheap labor: prisons. Because many prisoners are employed by prisons themselves and others by contractors within the correctional system, it's difficult to pin down just how many inmates actually work as labor, but it's thought to be at least 400,000 people - and may be as many as one million. These convicts have little legal recourse against injury or exploitation and usually earn very low wages, from just a few cents to a few dollars per hour.

Proponents of prison labor claim that it teaches inmates manufacturing skills they can use when they're released, that the inmates are treated well, and that it helps them save money for life after prison. They also point out that workers in certain prison industries have a much lower recidivism rate. Opponents call it slave labor, with a prison-industrial complex set up to ensure a steady flow of workers, many of whom are incarcerated for minor offenses in order to make cheap products for the wealthy. Some also claim it deprives American workers of jobs.

Here are a variety of products and services that have been provided by prison labor now and in the past. If you thought prisoners only made license plates, you're about to be surprised. Chances are that something you own or something you regularly interact with was either made or packaged by prison labor.

  • Christmas Toys

    Inmates at a Tennessee prison had the idea of putting their woodworking class to good use by making toys for children in need. Handmade rocking horses, dolls, and toy cars are all being put together by prisoners, and will be handed out by a local charity.
  • Ikea Furniture

    Ikea Furniture
    Photo: Ausi TCHEm Lamiw / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0
    Ikea was forced to apologize for using political prisoners in East Germany to make products for them in the '70s and '80s. The prisoners were reportedly paid 4% of the monthly salary of the average East German worker. Many were serving long prison terms for extremely minor offenses.
  • Military Equipment

    Military Equipment
    Photo: Unknown / DOD Live / Public Domain

    First established in the 1930s, Federal Prison Industries, now known as UNICOR, makes a huge amount of gear for the US military. Items made by labor working for UNICOR include jackets, uniforms, helmets, shoes, electronic equipment, guidance systems, and body armor for the US Army. They also make police equipment and human silhouette targets for firearms training - often paying inmates wages as low as 23 cents an hour. UNICOR is the government’s 39th largest contractor, with 110 factories in 79 different federal penitentiaries.

    While government agencies are required to buy from UNICOR, the work isn't always top-notch - the company stopped making helmets for a while after tens of thousands had to be recalled because of poor workmanship.
  • Artisanal Cheese

    Western states like Colorado and California are at the forefront of a movement employing prisoners to make artisanal foods like high-end cheese, fish, produce, and juices. Some of the products are even sold at Whole Foods.