Inmates May Work, But Don't Tell Social Security

27 Pages Posted: 24 Jul 2021

Date Written: June 21, 2021


The Thirteenth Amendment made involuntary servitude unconstitutional “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Today, inmate labor comes in three forms—as prison work assignments, for government industries, and for private enterprises. Some work, but not all, entitles inmates to pay, although rarely at a market wage. This article focuses on how that work, which is often mandatory, does not apply towards inmates’ future qualification for our nation’s social safety net of Social Security and Medicare. These programs require workers pay tax for a minimum number of quarters on a minimum level of wages. Congress carved out inmate labor from these programs in most instances; and, even when inmates work for private companies at a prevailing wage, most inmates do not earn enough for their work to qualify. This makes it less likely formerly incarcerated workers and members of their families qualify for benefits that would have been earned for the same work if conducted by non-inmates. Particularly because of the concentration of incarceration within certain communities, the personal and community impact of this exclusion is unjust when inmates do, in fact, work.

Keywords: tax, criminal justice, inmate labor, Social Security, Medicare, prison reform

Suggested Citation

McMahon, Stephanie Hunter, Inmates May Work, But Don't Tell Social Security (June 21, 2021). South Carolina Law Review, Vol. 72, No. 3, 2021, Available at SSRN:

Stephanie Hunter McMahon (Contact Author)

University of Cincinnati - College of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 210040
Cincinnati, OH 45221-0040
United States
513-556-4206 (Phone)
513-556-1236 (Fax)

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