Social Justice Matters: Prison Labour and You

Hard labour, the concept of a prison sentence involving brutal work for no compensation, is often treated as a thing of the past. A relic of Soviet gulags, perhaps, or Southern chain gangs. People are sometimes surprised to learn that today, most prison sentences include labour, a lot of that labour is hard, and many of us benefit directly from that labour; just the other day, I drove down the road in a car with license plates made by prisoners and passed a prison road crew mowing the verge and trimming trees.

Prisoners are expected to work extremely long hours, sometimes in dangerous conditions, and rest assured that they are not offered minimum wage. They make pennies by the hour in some cases, and in others receive no pay at all. The work is not optional, although prisoners may be able to ‘volunteer’ for specific kinds of work. The prison system makes a lot of money by hiring out prison labour for things like manufacturing, road and park crews, firefighting, and so forth. Individual states use their prison work force for maintenance of roads, State Parks, and other facilities considered the state’s responsibility.

Writing about BP’s use of prison labour in oil spill cleanup last month, Abe Louise Young said:

Known to some as ‘the inmate state,’ Louisiana has the highest rate of incarceration of any other state in the country. Seventy percent of its 39,000 inmates are African-American men. The Louisiana Department of Corrections (DOC) only has beds for half that many prisoners, so 20,000 inmates live in parish jails, privately run contract facilities and for-profit work release centers. Prisons and parish jails provide free daily labor to the state and private companies like BP, while also operating their own factories and farms, where inmates earn between zero and forty cents an hour.

Young goes on to note that not only are prisoners paid absurdly low wages, but businesses are actively encouraged to hire prisoners with the use of financial incentives. It’s not just that they get cheap labour impossible for other labour providers to match, because it includes people who can be forced to work and people who must accept wages below the minimum, they also get paid for hiring prisoners. There’s a reason labour unions have long opposed prison labour, and succeeded in getting it banned in many regions of the United States at one point, before capitalism won out and states were allowed to use prison labor again.

37 states have legalised prison labour and, in addition to supplying prisoners for work directly through the prison system, they also allow private contractors to take over prisoner care and hire their prisoners out. Prison labour is abusive, it’s vile, and prisoners have very few legal protections. Prisoners have difficulty filing complaints and it is assumed that work should be part of their sentence; any human rights abuses, in other words, are ‘deserved’ by the prisoner. If you didn’t want to be forced to fight forest fires and get exposed to toxic chemicals in the process, maybe you shouldn’t have run afoul of the justice system.

The demand for cheap labour ensures that there will always be a call for prison labour. And the disparities in the prison system mean that it’s only certain groups of people who are likely to be forced to do hard labour, to be exposed to hazardous working conditions, to be obliged to work without pay or for very low pay. The same people who are more likely to end up in prison, like young men of colour and people with mental illnesses, are likely to be exploited as prison labour.

Abusive labour practices for people in these classes are hardly new, and they occur outside of prison too. Young people of colour are less likely to access educational opportunities, more likely to end up in dead end service jobs they are afraid to leave, and they are certainly afraid to report labour abuses in case they get fired and have to scramble for another equally abusive and depressing job. Undocumented immigrants are kept in conditions akin to slavery on farms and in other facilities, deprived of food and water, controlled with abuse and fear, told they cannot leave or report their abuse or they will be deported. People with mental illness are exploited in ‘community service’ programs that claim to be helping people with disabilities while farming out cheap labour[1. Also, incidentally, available at below minimum wage, with the government waiving the requirement that people be paid something even vaguely approaching what they are worth.].

In prison, it is particularly stark, and it is particularly galling. Prison labour is a clear and undeniable human rights abuse, yet it’s not being confronted, questioned, or challenged in very many circles. If a prison wants to establish a community release program allowing prisoners who choose to do so to work in the community for a fair wage, that’s one kettle of fish. But not many prisons are doing that, and, oh, those that do?

Obedient inmates, or ‘trustees,’ become eligible for work release in the last three years of their sentences. This means they can be a part of a market-rate, daily labor force that works for private companies outside the prison gates. The advantage for trustees is that they get to keep a portion of their earnings, redeemable upon release.

I’m pretty sure that taking money from people who have earned it is just called ‘theft.’

Abuse of prisoners as a source of endless cheap labour needs to stop. Prisoners need more protections than we are currently offering them. Being in prison does not equate to a suspension of human rights. Just like me, a prisoner should have the right to report and complain about unsafe working conditions, exploitative wages, and abusive employers. A prisoner should have the right to choose to work, or not, and to choose the type of work ou is interested in doing.

Prisoners have rights too. Let’s stop denying them.