Time to Reckon with Prison Labor

Authored By 
Charles Decker
Blog contributor 
Policy Fellow

The United States prison population decreased for the third straight year in 2012. Reformers on the left and the right celebrated what the New York Times declared “a shift away from an almost four-decade policy of mass imprisonment.” A decrease in incarceration is certainly good news, but reformers must not forget that “mass imprisonment” is a political institution encompassing much more than just incarceration rates.

Throughout American history, labor has been an integral part of the experience of incarceration. For a century, Southern criminal justice was defined by the brutality of the convict lease, prison farm, and the chain gang. Images of roadside chain gangs permeate the cultural image of the prisoner. Nevertheless, the modern prison labor system is ill-regulated and ill-understood. It is also becoming ever more central to America’s massive criminal justice apparatus. As state budget crunches and non-violent offender reforms decrease prison populations, a reckoning with prison labor is necessary to ensure that such nascent developments reverberate throughout the entire structure of the “carceral state.”

In the first place, monetary restitution is becoming an ever-more central component of the carceral state. While most punishment takes the offender as the object, restitution focuses on the victim: the idea is to compensate him for a loss, to make him “whole.” Reform advocates such as The Sentencing Project have advocated for restitution as an alternative to incarceration. As it stands now, many states allow courts to impose restitution alongside other punishments, and payment of restitution is usually a condition of parole or restoral of civil rights. (Governor Bob McDonnell’s much-hailed softening of felony disenfranchisement in Virginia, for example, includes paid-in-full restitution as a precondition to suffrage.) Inmates, therefore, have to consider how to fulfill restitution requirements under conditions of severely restricted wage-earning opportunities.

Such financial considerations are only compounded when the offender leaves prison. As sociologists Bruce Western and Becky Pettit have written, a prison stay decreases annual wages by as much as 40 percent for the average male prisoner, all else equal. Many factors contribute to this effect, including difficulty finding employment and continued restitution and other punitive costs. More and more municipalities are “banning the box” and attempting to address ex-offender employment head on, which is commendable. Even without overt discrimination, though, offenders enter the job market at a distinct disadvantage thanks to their lack of job skills and experience.

These challenges alone clearly make the case for expanded work opportunities in prison. Of course, prison labor is alive and well. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, federal inmates earn 12 cents to 40 cents per hour for jobs serving the prison, and 23 cents to $1.15 per hour in Federal Prison Industries factories. Prisoners are increasingly working for private companies as well. A significant cut of even these token wages goes to criminal justice system fees. Offenders thus have little hope of saving money while in prison, and this lack of money combined with fragile post-release support systems is an explosive formula for recidivism and reincarceration.

As such, the time has come to institute a living wage for prison labor. This wage need not be at the same level in prison as it would be outside. But prison wages must be high enough to cover the fees imposed by the criminal justice system while allowing offenders to reserve enough money to have a fair start upon release. Such a policy could make a big difference in reducing recidivism and bringing down the incarceration rate even further.

While much prison policy is determined at the state level, the Federal Government does have power over prison labor policy, even for non-federal inmates. In 1979, Congress created the Prison Industries Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP). Under PIECP, goods made by prisoners are banned from interstate transport unless inmates are paid “prevailing wages,” or wages comparable to those in the private sector. These criteria, however, are routinely circumvented. PIECP has laid the groundwork for government regulation of prison labor—what is needed now is better enforcement.

Two major objections to these proposals may arise. The first is concrete: free workers will cry foul over competition from prison labor. The second is philosophical: nobody is forced to work, but prison labor is at its heart coercive. Both concerns are accurate and complex, but the answer to each stems from the same fact: prison labor is not going anywhere. It has existed for as long as the American criminal justice system, and ignoring its problems serves the interests of no worker, free or incarcerated. Bringing these realities out into the open is the first step toward bringing the issue of prison labor into the movement to reform the carceral state.

Area of study 
Criminal Justice