Why you should care

Because prison is too expensive to put people behind bars just for the sake of it. 

Now here’s a prison reform: Turn the jailhouse into a workhouse.

No, we’re not advocating a return to the gulag here, or roadside chain gangs, or anything involving breaking rocks on the side of the highway under the beating sun. But only a scant proportion of 1.5 million Americans locked up are working. That’s bad policy, both for our economy and for the prisoners themselves.

It’s not a far toss from the Jim Crow South.

Start with the cost: about $30,000 per inmate per year. Paid by taxpayers, to the tune of a whopping $45 billion a year, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. Locking people up also removes millions of potential workers from our labor market, which in turn reduces our economic productivity. Some prisoners do work, of course — making Postal Service mailbags, license plates and the like — but they’re few. The general rule is that penitentiaries don’t provide job opportunities, outside upkeep.

Which is a shame, because prison exists not just to punish offenders, but to rehabilitate them. Mandatory work programs for inmates, provided they’re paid fairly, would go a long way toward giving convicts a sense of purpose, belonging and dignity. At the same time, they’d help solve one of the prison industry’s greatest problems: getting ex-convicts jobs once they’re out. It’s a main reason that more than 75 percent of offenders get re-arrested within five years of their release — more than half before the end of year one.

It might not seem like making license plates would look great on a résumé, but done right, work programs instill basic skills: how to take pride in your work, learn to cooperate with others and take instruction, says Martin Horn, a lecturer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former secretary of corrections for the state of Pennsylvania. “It can offset the cost of imprisonment and teach transferable skills,” he says. Even better if the skills required are a bit more advanced. A RAND Corp. study found a 13 percent increase in employment post-release for inmates who did some educational or vocational program — and they were 43 percent less likely to get arrested again. If mandatory education and work programs are combined, prison can start to seem less like an unemployment guarantee and more like a talent pipeline, says Fred Patrick, the interim director of the Center for Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute of Justice. “Prison should be giving people a leg up.”

But many aren’t sold. If prisoners are made to produce goods on the cheap for private or public entities, they’d come to rely on people in jail to stay out of the red. That’s a slippery slope of perverse interests, says Sheila Bedi, a professor at the Northwestern University School of Law. In that sense, it’s not a far toss from the Jim Crow South, where we lock people up to get roads built or, in this case, license plates made; it can easily turn into exploitation.

So we should be careful. But the upshot is: Inmates gain skills and money, businesses or governments profit, and the taxpayer gets a break. And who doesn’t like paying less in taxes?

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