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5 prison-related business story ideas

September 21, 2018

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Business-related stories involving prisons are receiving more attention. Here are a few starting points to use in your own reporting.(Photo by Pixabay user Ichigo121212)

A large-scale prison strike spanning at least 17 states took place from August 21st to September 9th of this year. Inmates refused to work, and some went on hunger strike, in order to draw attention to prison conditions and labor practices.

One of the 10 demands made by prisoners had to do with extremely low wages, while another asked for the reinstatement of Pell Grants, government subsidies for college students.

Business-related stories involving prisons are receiving more attention both regionally and nationally. Here are a few starting points you can use in your own reporting.

Effects on the Local Economy

State prisons in Washington, Arizona, California, and Virginia pay prisoners far below minimum wage to fight fires. In California, the program saves around $90 to $100 million a year.

While some states, such as Arizona, allow ex-convicts to become paid firefighters upon release, other states, such as California, have convict restrictions for EMT certifications.

It’s not just firefighters, either. Some prisons offer job training programs for professions that don’t offer occupational licensing to ex-convicts, Axios reported.

MuckRock has filed public records requests on inmate salaries for fighting fires. Regional reporters could also dig into salaries for other professions, as well as local restrictions for occupational licensing.

Another resource is the liberal think tank National Employment Law Project’s 2016 report, Unlicensed & Untapped: Removing Barriers to State Occupational Licenses For People with Records. NELPS ranks state based on their laws and how they affect applicants with conviction histories. Regardless of one’s political affiliation, the report and endnotes could be a good starting point for further research.

The Prison Policy Initiative has compiled statistics on prisoner wages in every state.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics also provides one-sheets and full reports on imprisonment rates, admissions and releases, and more.

The Use of Prison Labor

The Department of Justice presents prison labor as an alternative to outsourcing to jobs overseas, according to Vox Media. Finding U.S. companies that are involved isn’t always easy, and many have stopped the practice under public pressure. However, the Federal Prison Industries’ annual report is a good starting point.

Prison Phone Calls

In some states, prison phone companies charge high rates for incarcerated people to speak with friends or family members. Muck Rock has filed public records requests on phone calls from prisons, hoping to shed some light on correctional agreements with telecoms.

Sometimes, prisons lower the cost of inmate calls, as the Texas prison system recently voted to do. Call fees were lowered from 26 cents a minute to six cents a minute.

Private Prisons

About 128,000 people were held in privately operated prisons in 2016, the most recent year for which data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics are available. Undercover reporting by Mother Jones’ Shane Bauer has given an inside look into one private prison in Winnfield, Louisiana. Regional reporters have covered everything from prison health care crises to the effects of tax rules on private prison companies, and everything in between.

Prison Population Forecaster

The Prison Population Forecaster is a tool created by the Urban Institute. It can help regional reporters forecast how policy changes might affect state prison populations.

Users can adjust prison admissions and term lengths, and see how the changes affect the prison population and cost. They can also compare their forecast with what’s expected in 2025. The tool is based on data from the 2015 National Corrections Reporting Program, and the methodology is detailed online. Code and data is posted on GitHub.


  • Yael Grauer

    Yael is an investigative tech reporter covering privacy and security, digital freedom, hacking, and mass surveillance. Yael currently works at Consumer Reports as a tech journalist and the content lead of CR Security Planner. She has freelanced for m...

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