Should We Make Prisoners Work for Free?

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Why you should care

This debate goes to the heart of America’s relationship with incarceration.

This week: Should we make prisoners work for free? Let us know by email or in the comments below.

When U.S. politicians talk of helping workers earn higher wages, they’re almost never referring to a group of people who constitute a population as large as that of Houston, the country’s fourth-largest city. This group gets paid almost nothing for their labor in five states, and their counterparts elsewhere have pitifully low salaries — far below minimum wage. Who are they? The incarcerated men and women of America.

So should we be paying prisoners better? Doing that will help prisoners earn, save and prepare for a life after they are released and will eliminate what some prison-reform advocates view as the last vestige of slavery in the country. The 13th Amendment, which otherwise banned slavery, expressly allowed the practice to continue for prisoners “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

It’s not very complex — it’s simple slavery and economic exploitation.

Paul Wright of the Human Rights Defense Center

“Ultimately, it’s not very complex — it’s simple slavery and economic exploitation,” says Paul Wright, executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center, a prisoner-rights nonprofit based in Lake Worth, Florida.

But getting rid of the practice isn’t easy. It’s constitutionally legal, and prisoners are not considered employees or workers under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Using taxpayer dollars to boost salaries for criminals also probably wouldn’t go down well with the American public, explains Alex Friedmann, president of the Private Corrections Institute, a nonprofit watchdog, and the managing editor of Prison Legal News. “I don’t anticipate any change,” he says.

Prior to conviction, no arrestee can be forced to work. Detainees of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement can’t be forced to work either — though some lawsuits have alleged forced labor. But for most of the nation’s 2.3 million convicts, there is no escape.

Hourly wage rates for most regular prison jobs range from nothing in Texas, Florida, Arkansas, Alabama and Georgia to $1 in states like Connecticut. And the average wage prisoners earn in the rest of the country has actually dropped compared to 2001, according to research by Wendy Sawyer, an analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative, a think tank based in Northampton, Massachusetts. That contrasts with other major democracies, including India and the U.K., which — while home to their own share of prison-related problems — have increased wages for prisoners in recent years.

There are exceptions within the U.S. prison system too. Around 100,000 prisoners work on what are known as industry jobs — effectively, factories inside jails — churning out everything from food to clothes. They receive better pay — as high as $4.90 an hour in Alaska — though still well below minimum wage. And there’s a tiny slice of the prisoner population, around 5,700, that works, through subcontractors, for big-brand companies like Microsoft and McDonald’s. They earn, through what is called the Prison Industry Enhancement, at least federal minimum wages.

But the workers in industry jobs or working under PIE constitute less than 5 percent of America’s prisoners. And it isn’t as though prisons are doing well economically by not paying prisoners; many are running losses. For companies tapping into prison labor, though, the model works well. Wage bills are low, and companies don’t need to spend on benefits. Some prisons even offer land or property at subsidized rates to incentivize industry to seek partnerships.

And nationally, there’s not much appetite for better wages for prisoners, because memories of bruising economic blows are fresh for many working families, says Friedmann. But then again, most major social changes have followed years of back-and-forth arguments, and they weren’t always universally popular. The debate over prison labor, in other words, is unlikely to go away anytime soon.

So what do you think? Is forced labor a punishment for criminals, or akin to slavery? Let us know by emailing thirdrail@ozy.com or by answering in the comments below.

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