Look up prison labor and you’ll find a whole host of different opinions – some say it’s a chance for inmates to acquire new skills and knowledge, which can lead to employment once they finish their sentence. The vast majority of accounts though, describe prison labor as essentially ‘slave labor’ – unpaid or incredibly low-paying forced labor, exploiting inmates.

How is this relevant to the beauty industry? Many private companies, including beauty and fashion brands, use or have used prison labor, though most of us have no idea it’s even happening. Just like with sustainable sourcing and child labor, it’s essential to know how our products are being made so we can make ethical buying choices.

First, what is prison labor?

All prison inmates in the US are required to work unless they’re physically or mentally unable to.

There are two kinds of prison jobs for inmates:

  1. Prison work and ‘correctional industries’ work – cleaning, food prep, maintenance, sewing military uniforms, making license plates, answering phones at a call center.
  2. Work done for private companies in a variety of industries under the Prison Industry Enhancement program (PIE).

During COVID-19 many states are relying on prison labor to produce hand sanitizer and smocks and to wash potentially contaminated laundry and cleaning supplies. The inmates are earning cents per hour and working in crowded areas without any personal protective equipment for themselves. The five largest known clusters of the virus are now found in U.S. prisons where testing and protective measures are virtually non-existent. 

How are these low wages and unsafe conditions allowed? Inmates are not protected by the Fair Labor Standards Act, which ensures workers receive minimum wage, overtime pay, and the right to refuse unsafe work. If inmates refuse work, they can be placed in solitary confinement or denied family visits and parole.


Image: Keith Negley

Is prison labor slave labor?

Most people celebrate the day congress passed the 13th amendment to end slavery in the US. The problem is though, slavery didn’t end that day, it was just redesigned. The amendment states that involuntary servitude could continue as “punishment for crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Translation: slavery is allowed among prisoners. 

In the US, inmates working in prisons earn pennies per hour. And in states like Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas, most inmates are paid nothing at all – the very definition of slave labor.

And there’s one more layer to the equation. The US is one of the only countries in the world that have privately-run, for-profit prisons in addition to government-run prisons. These privatized prisons profit from every inmate in their prison, and the longer they’re in there, the more the prison makes. Private prisons offer some of the lowest working wages and cut corners on health care, security, and cleaning wherever they can to increase their profit margin.  

"People constantly criticize clothing companies for using overseas sweatshops, but to not put that same awareness on prison labor happening in one's own country makes us hypocrites." -Aurora Jimenez Castro, Affinity Magazine 


Image: Netflix - 13th by Ava DuVernay

Why wages matter for inmates

Inmates have to buy their necessities while in prison – that means tampons, toiletries, personal hygiene products, and phone cards. In a state like Colorado, it would take a woman at least two weeks of full-time work to buy a box of tampons.

And once inmates are released, money matters even more. When they return to regular life with little or no savings, they have no way to afford food, housing, transportation, health care, and their kids’ expenses. And studies have shown that prisoners discharged with more money have a substantially lower risk of reoffending.

So not only should we pay inmates fairly because they’re people and not slaves, but because it means they have a better chance of living a crime-free life when they’re released.

Prison & forced labor in China & North Korea

This situation is even worse in some prisons in China where inmates work 14-20 hour days, get beaten or tortured if they don’t finish their work, and get paid virtually nothing. And the worst part - some of these inmates aren’t even criminals – they’re Uyghur Muslims being detained and forced to renounce their religion, pledge allegiance to the Chinese government, and work in factories under abusive conditions for next to nothing.

While this seems far away and not within our control, the truth is, these forced laborers are making products we use every day. A new report has found 83 well-known, international brands to be directly or indirectly involved with forced labor in China. Just last year, E.l.f Cosmetics was fined for importing products containing material from North Korea - products made in North Korea are considered by US authorities to be forced-labor-goods. 

A comprehensive report posted last year detailed the full extent of China's "Prison Slave Labor Industry". It outlines the countless products made by prisoners using forced labor - clothing from designer brands and retailers, false eyelashes, cosmetics, beauty packaging, toys, food, the list goes on and on. And it's estimated that at least 20% of these products wind up in the US. 

Are these companies using forced labor intentionally? Probably not. Most companies whose products are made with Chinese forced labor likely have no idea it’s even happening. It’s common for Chinese manufacturers to sub-contract production out to a cheaper manufacturer – this way they can quote an incredibly low price to prospective clients, and make more profit off the backs of even cheaper labor. And often, that cheap labor = forced labor.

And even though it’s illegal to import slave labor products into the US, Chinese facilities can use multiple layers of subcontractors to hide the true slave labor source of their products. And as we said, most companies have little or no visibility into who’s producing their goods or if their production has been subcontracted out, let alone if workers are being paid a fair wage, are working voluntarily, or even if they’re working from prison. This low-visibility situation is a hazard of doing business with some Chinese factories that most companies are well aware of. 

Why do companies use prison labor?

Why would a company get involved with prison labor? The answer is money. Companies get cheap labor, they don’t have to pay employee benefits, allow for sick days, give vacation time, or ever worry about raises. Not to mention, the company receives a $2,400 tax credit for every inmate they employ under the Work Opportunity Tax Credit.

And in the cases of Chinese forced labor, companies generally produce in China for cost-savings and aren't doing the due diligence to vet their supply chain. But this is an inherent danger of producing in some Chinese factories where it's almost impossible to be sure your supply chain is free of human rights violations. That's a compromise these companies have decided they're comfortable making. 

Which companies use or have used U.S. prison labor?

While the list of brands using Chinese prison labor is staggering, the list of current and past brands using U.S. prison labor is right up there as well. Grocery stores, beauty brands, fast food and coffee shops, fashion brands, airlines, tech companies – the list goes on and on. Inmates work at companies sewing clothes and accessories, answering phones at call centers, cleaning, producing products or packaging, and lots more.   

In the beauty world, brands like Revlon, Proctor and Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, and Mary Kay have been caught using U.S. forced labor in the recent past, but have since stopped after being confronted. 

Today, there are about 2.3 million inmates in the U.S., from which more than 4100 corporations are profiting. These companies make over a billion dollars profit every year from the use of prison labor.


The other side of the argument

Some people praise U.S. prison work for its rehabilitative nature – that inmates are learning new skills, redeeming themselves for their crimes, gaining self-esteem, and preparing themselves for life after prison. And while that may be true in a tiny percentage of cases, most prison jobs offer no transferrable skills, many are in unsafe/unhealthy conditions, and actually harm inmates’ self-worth by making them feel like slaves instead of people.

Another camp of people feels that criminals deserve to be punished – after all they’ve committed violent crimes and should pay for their actions. But wherever you stand on the eye-for-an-eye ideology, the truth is, 97% of federal inmates and 2/3 of state prisoners were convicted of non-violent crimes. And the most mind-boggling stat: over half of all inmates in city or county jails are thought to be innocent of the crimes they’re accused of.

The truth is, the prison system is far from just, and as we’ve seen, riddled with systemic racism and corrupt, for-profit practices. Prison labor is basically modern-day slavery and does essentially nothing to help rehabilitate inmates for a crime-free life after prison.

So, what can we do?

Number one, as consumers, start asking questions to your favorite brands. When transparency and ethical production is a non-negotiable to customers, companies will start looking into (and improving) their supply chain. Because the truth is, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to unethical practices in the beauty industry, fashion industry, and so many other industries – think child labor, environmental destruction, chemical leaching, unsafe working conditions. We can do better, and we can certainly expect better.

And as citizens, we can demand justice just like we have for George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter Movement. In fact, the two are inextricably linked. A disproportionate amount of black men and women fill US prisons and it all stems back to the systemic racism that permeates our world. When slavery was abolished in 1865 (with the caveat that slavery could continue for imprisoned populations), black men were arrested for no reason whatsoever. They were then legally put back to work as slaves in the prison system.

And the disparity continues today: African Americans are incarcerated 5x more than Caucasians. And while drug use rates are similar among both races, African Americans are imprisoned for drug charges 6x more often than Caucasians.

Actions you can take to help:

  • Sign petitions on, Action Network, and DIY Roots Action to end legalized slavery.
  • Watch the movie 13th by Ava DuVernay to learn more about how the Thirteenth Amendment led to an epidemic of mass incarceration in the US.
  • Look for full transparency from brands made in China.
  • Donate to the American Civil Liberties Union which works to defend and preserve individual rights and liberties in courts, legislatures, and communities.
  • Donate to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund which supports racial justice through education, advocacy, and litigation.
  • Donate to the Equal Justice Initiative which works to end mass incarceration, excessive punishment, and racial inequality.
  • Vote! Support representatives that are committed to racial equality and justice for all.


Thanks for reading and for supporting a more just, transparent, and ethical world for all of us.

- ĀTHR Beauty xo

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