Using Inmate Labor to Build Affordable Housing

How do we balance the need to provide job training to those incarcerated with the need to ensure that prisoners are not exploited for their work?

2 minute read

April 12, 2020, 7:00 AM PDT

By LM_Ortiz

Base Camp Village

A project built by the Base Camp Village nonprofit in Butte County, California. / via Shelterforce

Programs aimed at creating affordable housing and providing crucial job training for inmates can trace their roots to an innovative program created in South Dakota in the late 1990s.

Bill Janklow, a conservative Republican nicknamed "Wild Bill," pledged to make affordable housing a priority when he was elected to a third term as South Dakota's governor in 1994. Janklow, who died in 2012, spearheaded what’s now known as the Governor’s House Project: small homes built at a lesser cost because they are constructed by inmates who work for free.

Twenty-three years after the program launched, more than 2,000 homes have been sold—two-bedroom houses today can cost $49,700. And in 2019, inmates worked a total of 142,060 hours building the homes, according to the South Dakota Housing Development Authority.

The program has also inspired a similar one that’s set to launch in Missouri this year, while another project in northern California is using inmates to build a 12-unit apartment complex intended for the chronically homeless. 

But with the rising focus on rehabilitating inmates comes increased awareness of prisoner exploitation. The Prison Policy Initiative says that when inmates are paid for labor, they can receive as little as nine cents an hour. Inmate advocates are pushing for better standards for workers behind bars.

"They’re providing a service that has value and they should be compensated for it just like everybody else," says Alex Friedmann, managing editor of Prison Legal News and an advocate for the rights of incarcerated people . . . 

Wednesday, April 1, 2020 in Shelterforce Magazine

Black and white Rideshare Pick-Up Zone sign

The Slow Death of Ride Sharing

From the beginning, TNCs like Lyft and Uber touted shared rides as their key product. Now, Lyft is ending the practice.

June 1, 2023 - Human Transit

Urban sidewalk shaded by large mature trees

Cool Walkability Planning

Shadeways (covered sidewalks) and pedways (enclosed, climate controlled walkways) can provide comfortable walkability in hot climates. The Cool Walkshed Index can help plan these facilities.

June 1, 2023 - Todd Litman

Traffic on the 405 interstate freeway through the Sepulveda Pass at Getty Center Drive in Los Angeles, California

Congestion Pricing Could Be Coming to L.A.

The infamously car-centric city is weighing a proposed congestion pricing pilot program to reduce traffic and encourage public transit use.

May 30, 2023 - Los Angeles Times

View of New York City alleyway with outdoor restaurant seating and people walking between brick apartment buildings with fire escapes

As Business Districts Continue to Falter, Mixed-Use Neighborhoods Flourish

While office vacancies remain high and foot traffic sparse in many U.S. downtowns, areas with housing and businesses are more vibrant and desirable than ever.

4 hours ago - The Wall Street Journal

Beachside basketball couty with ocean view and blue painted court at Angel Gate Park in Los Angeles, California on a sunny day

Los Angeles County's 30x30 Strategy Earns National Recognition

L.A. County's Parks Needs Assessment Plus (PNA+) received a 2023 achievement award from the National Association of Counties (NACo).

5 hours ago - National Association of Counties

A spraling subdivision of single-family detached housing in a desert setting.

Albuquerque Poised to Legalize Accessory Dwelling Units

Allowing ADU construction on parcels previously zoned exclusively for single-family detached housing is one component of the Housing Forward ABQ initiative, a larger effort to reform zoning practices in Albuquerque.

6 hours ago - Albuquerque Journal

Project Manager III

San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency

UDO Transportation Planner

City of Charlotte - Charlotte Area Transit

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.