Is Free Prison Labor Justified? We Asked, You Answered - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Is Free Prison Labor Justified? We Asked, You Answered

Is Free Prison Labor Justified? We Asked, You Answered

By OZY Editors


Because we don’t seem to agree on whether prison is for punishment or rehabilitation.

By OZY Editors

OZY's electrifying TV show serves up provocative questions each week.OZY's electrifying TV show serves up provocative questions each week. We want to hear your thoughts:

Last week, we askedShould we make prisoners work for free? You answered, and here are your thoughts, edited for clarity.

Josh Hedrick

I have been working in the prison system for over two years — before I started, I had a different perspective. I don’t think inmates should get paid any more than they currently do. They get three free meals a day, also essentially free medical [care] and free meds. In my state they get free cable. They have access to gyms and recreation. The only thing that they are forced to do is clean up after themselves. They also have access to completing a GED and getting bachelor’s degrees and certifications. If we are being honest, in many cases the incarcerated have it better off than many poor law-abiding citizens.

J. David Standeffer, Anderson, South Carolina

How could this possibly be distinguished from slave labor? Of course, offenders must be punished, and serious offenders must suffer imprisonment. If they are qualified, willing and able, some may work for the extremely low wages presently allowed. This provides some incentive for good behavior and may help assist dependents of inmates. Denial of the pittance prisoners may earn and allowing forced labor could likely lead to a more dangerous situation within prisons.

Let them work, then deduct their rent, food and utilities.

Diana Coats

Connie Cooke, Fullerton, California

Yes, I feel that prisoners, whenever possible, should work to help pay for their food and lodging. Many have never held a real job and working an eight-hour day would be good for them. It might tire them out enough that when they get back to the prison, they’ll be too tired to cause trouble. For many, this might lead to a real job when they get released. Perhaps they could get paid a little and that money be deposited into an account for when they are released — not given to them in prison, where it might be used to buy drugs.

Brandon Calhoun 

They should not work for free. They are already paying their debt, why should they also be slaves to the system? Suffering isn’t how to rehabilitate someone. Not only should they be paid, but they should also receive a fair wage. Anything else is straight-up slavery.


Diana Coats, Kiln, Mississippi

Let them work, then deduct their rent, food and utilities. Just like on the outside. If they have funds left over, a percentage goes toward their “release fund,” so that when they get out, they are not broke.

Gerald Wolfe, Rock Springs, Wyoming

I believe that many prisoners do not have a good work ethic or durability. If they were required to participate in meaningful work as part of their sentence, it could reduce recidivism. Many do not return to their world with the ability to do a legitimate job, and they fall back into the trap of whatever vice they were incarcerated for in the first place. It would also be significant if they could be “employed” by a legitimate business, by proxy or by telecommuting, so they would have an opportunity to learn interpersonal skills, honest labor responsibility and honorable behavior. Paid? I would think being able to re-enter society better prepared for its challenges would be payment enough.

Marge Mink, Erie, Pennsylvania

Hell no. Our system is corrupt and way too many people are in jail for petty stuff and shouldn’t be. 

John Roeder, Nashville, Tennessee

Why should prisoners be paid more than the average worker? Prisoners are paid a high wage for doing nothing. As a citizen, I do not receive free housing, food, clothing or medical care. If this is converted into its market equivalent, that is already far above minimum wage, and the only work that prisoners have done is break the law. 

Rodney Dockery

Yes, and it should be hard physical work on a chain gang. Six days a week. They can be taught a skill their last few years in. We have tried the be-nice approach for the last 50 years, and it has been a total bust. 

Tim Strom, Longview, Washington

Prisoners should be trained in marketable skills, and any work that they perform should be at minimum wage or higher, with 75 percent of earnings deposited into an account accessible upon release or for family emergencies. People should be imprisoned as punishment rather than for punishment.

Theresa Godchaux

Prisoners are receiving “in kind” payment with a roof over their heads, free, clean water and three square meals a day! They also receive free health care, cable TV, free laundry — this is more than my college-educated sons made in their first jobs after graduation. And we are paying the criminals for what? Seems they should be paying rent for all of these benefits.

Michael William Elam, Tampa, Florida

It is tantamount to slavery, and a recipe fit for recidivism. Look, nobody is saying that these guys need to be making $100K a year with stock options. But at least half of the federal minimum wage, untouched by the prison they are in, so that when they are released, they are not penniless and homeless. And, if you add earned money to the skills taught working their jobs, it makes it much more likely someone will look for legal work upon release — if we can also make it so a criminal record does not automatically disqualify people from being hired.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories