Compelling a prisoner to work without pay is not illegal, a federal court has ruled in considering a Texas inmate's request. The prisoner worked in the prison laundry and claimed he should be paid at least the federal minimum wage.
While the federal Fair Labor Standards Act () doesn't specifically exempt prisoners from its coverage, the 5th Circuit court ruled that prison workers are not "employees." Rather, they are wards of the state and have their living expenses paid by the state. (Loving v. Johnson, No. 05-10679, 5th Cir., 2006)
Tip: Other federal courts have ruled that prisoners also aren't entitled to FLSA protections if they're working inside prison grounds for private companies. (Prisoners working on work-release are protected.) That means there may be opportunities for private industry-sponsored work within prisons at less than minimum wage and no overtime worries.