Recently inmate industries made the news on a public radio talk program: “The National Prison Strike (According To Prisoners),” September 28, 2016, On Point, WBUR, Boston, Massachusetts.
I applaud fresh attention given to jails and prisons, so this was good to hear. However, the program seemed to accept at face value the comments of the inmates who were interviewed, and there were no callers who represented the corrections agency perspective for balance. The net impression was that inmate workers are being exploited.
This is not to say the concerns voiced on the program have no validity. But a number of questions come to mind that need to be unpacked to understand the situation more fully. For context, inmates perform a lot of the work that keeps prisons running; prison industries are a different kind of work assignment.
Some questions are:
- Are work programs a net benefit to inmates, even if the inmates’ pay is low or practically non-existent?
- Without these jobs, what would inmates do with their time? Idleness and boredom are not positives. Education and rehabilitative programs are important as well, but budgets are already inadequate to meet needs and demand in most agencies.
- Without these jobs, how would inmates gain work experience and develop job skills? Both are correlated with staying out of prison after release.
- If prison inmates didn’t work, could agency budgets cover salaries for jobs in kitchens, laundry, and maintenance (as distinct from industrial jobs), without cutting money for inmate education, treatment, and re-entry assistance?
- Who buys correctional industry products? State laws and regulations vary, and in many states industry products can be sold only to tax-funded organizations. The Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program provides a regulated structure for exceptions to that principle.
- How many in-house correctional industries make a profit (beyond self-sustaining revenues)? How much of any profit is going to victim restitution or to defray costs of operating prisons? How else do agencies use these revenues?
- How much profit do corporate partners make, where those relationships exist? How much of the revenue from these programs goes to victim compensation or defray the costs of operating secure facilities? Are their wage-setting arguments convincing?
Industry jobs for inmates are not “punishment” (wording of the 13th Amendment notwithstanding). In a sense, they are the most real-world aspect of life inside. They deserve to be understood better. As is often the case in corrections, it’s not a black-and-white issue.
Learn more about inmate work programs:
Correctional industries information, U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Corrections