Evaluating the Concept of Employment in Prisons: An Idea From Across the Pond

Evaluating the Concept of Employment in Prisons: An Idea From Across the Pond

On February 23, 2013, The Economist published a very thought-provoking article entitled “Jobs in Jail: Remunerative Justice.”  This article was about England’s system of putting the incarcerated to work in factory settings within their prisons.  These factories are owned by private entities, not the British government.  According to the article, this is a position supported by both government and private industry.  In this post, I’ll first present the high points of the article, then analyze it from an American perspective.

Here are excerpts from the article which effectively summarize the high points:

“Turning Britain’s prisons into what the coalition government calls ‘industrious places of productive work’ lies at the heart of its plan for penal reform.

“From time to time . . . the authorities have tried to put . . . [prisons] on a commercial footing.  But overcrowding and outdated facilities have hampered serious work programs.  Only around 10,000 of the 84,000 prisoners in England and Wales are currently employed in industrial workshops.  The government wants to double that figure in a decade and extend working hours from an average of a little over 20 a week to 40.  And it aims to lure more private outfits into prisons to set up and run units themselves.

“Two factors have persuaded the coalition to embrace prison industries now.  The first is stubbornly high reoffending rates, especially among the many ex-cons who are unemployed.  According to a survey by the Ministry of Justice, almost three-quarters of prisoners who fail to find jobs and accommodation on release are reconvicted within a year — compared with only two-fifths of those who do.  Yet less than 40% of offenders manage to find work after completing custodial or community sentences.

“The second related spur is financial.  The prison budget is being cut dramatically, mainly by reducing staff . . .  The squeeze makes addressing expensive recidivism an urgent priority.  In theory, prison industries could turn a modest profit . . .  Prisoners’ wages are already docked to provide support for victims of crime; the hope is that more productive employment will boost those contributions, too.

“Not everyone shares the government’s zeal, however.  Inmates toil for piddling rates, often at jobs that offer little stimulation or chance for advancement; a protesting group of current and former prisoners calls itself the Campaign Against Prison Slavery.  The name echoes criticisms of some such programs in America, where the use of prisoners to work on farms or make clothing is often decried as exploitative and ineffective.

“Andrew Neilson of the Howard League for Penal Reform, a pressure group that set up a prison industry at Coldingley in 2005, which has since closed, thinks the scheme should be more radical.  Businesses should be given far more control over the workplace behind bars.  Prisoners should sign contracts, get the minimum wage, pay taxes, and enjoy employment rights as far as possible.  This would prepare them better for life on the outside, he thinks.”

The ideas presented in The Economist article might not be as radical as they initially sound.  While prison industries were dangerous and oppressive enterprises in the beginning — which motivated legislation to protect inmates from unfair and dangerous practices — they have since been rebranded with a more professional and clinical image.  This isn’t to say that they are wonderful, but they no longer resemble death traps, merely places where inmates go to work for next to nothing (but still more than those who clean toilets or mop floors) and do so for many years on end.  Prison administrators would even have these inmate participants yearn for such a meaningless job.  All would agree that it is better than scrubbing pigeon waste for $5.25 a month.

Within the Federal Bureau of Prisons, there are UNICOR (Federal Prison Industries, Inc.) factories.  These factories, which are staffed by federal inmates, produce a number of products and offer a number of services.  On the products side, they manufacture clothing for inmates and military personnel, print brochures and other publications and documents for the federal government, and even used to compile wiring harnesses for the United States’ military weapons.  On the services side, they operate call centers, sort hangers (for private retailers like Target), and even process patent applications for the U.S. Patent Office.

The problem, in many minds, revolves around a culture of complacency.  Inmates tend to think of UNICOR employment as a good thing.  While they must give up their social lives and leisure time to work for UNICOR, they are paid the highest wages within the Federal Bureau of Prisons.  Thus, instead of making $5.25 (the minimum wage for federal inmates) or up to perhaps $15 per month, they can make upwards of several hundred dollars a month (as in two or three hundred a month).  In fact, many UNICOR employees make well over $50 a month.  This is a huge amount when you take into account that most federal inmates make less than $20 for 40 hours of work a week.  Well, 40 hours of recorded work a week.  Many inmates are simply logged as working 40 hours a week but, in fact, put in substantially fewer hours.  This is likely due to prison overcrowding and there not being enough tasks for inmates to fulfill.  After all, there are only so many floors to sweep and so many pieces of trash to pick up around the prison.

Because of this complacency, inmates accept the idea of working for UNICOR wages as a boon, which very well might be considering the current correction’s happenings.  But it is still a slave wage.  The inmate is still making far less than a marketable wage for a marketable task.  The ones to come out on top are the private businesses that utilize this slave workforce who are, ironically, glad to have a job that pays so little.  Don’t get me wrong, I respect my friends who put in the time in UNICOR so that they can live well, pay off court fines and restitution payments, and send some home to their families if any is left over.  But I also see the larger picture, that they are being used by private industry in a nefarious way.  And this method harms private businesses which either won’t use inmate workers (for moral and social reasons) or can’t obtain such contracts (because they lack the clout).

The long and short of this debate is that the prison industry has the potential to be a useful tool.  It has the potential to pay inmates a marketable wage (say, minimum wage).  It has the potential to teach prisoners needed, marketable skills.  And it has the potential to do so in an honest and stand-up method.  But until inmates are treated like citizens and human beings, this will not be the case.  Until inmates are treated as normal American workers, the term “inmate labor” will be synonymous with slave labor.