Prison Labor Ethics

Prison labor is an ethics issue that I have never considered before. Apparently that’s true of a lot of people. In Massachusetts, an Amherst-Pelham Regional High School  student named Spencer Cliche (great name!) was challenged to undertake an investigative journalism project, He eventually published a 3,000-word exposé  on prison labor topic in his school’s newspaper.

The high school, it seems, had contracted with a local prison to re-upholster its auditorium seats,  taking its low bid for the job over another bid by a local business. As a result of the uproar sparked by Spencer’s work, the school superintendent issued a statement to school staff members promising never to contract with the prison again.

It does not appear, however, that this decision was based on  careful balancing of the ethics issues involved, but rather, as usual, a lazy capitulation to avoid an emotion-based controversy.

The local  newspaper, The Daily Hampshire Gazette, eventually picked up the story. as did a local radio station that featured Cliche’s report as the “question of the morning.” Then the issue was raised by The Marshall Project, a prison and justice system reform project.

In addition to routine prison labor, which is usually handled in a prison facility, there are also state-run “correctional industries,” such as MassCor, which arranges for inmates to do work for  schools, nursing homes, towns, non-profits and other institutions. Obviously, their costs are lower than competing businesses, because prisoners earn less than a dollar an hour on average for their labor, according to Prison Policy Initiative.

Thus we have multiple looming ethics issues, among them…

  • Is it ethical to force prisoners to work at all?

I don’t see how an honest argument can be formulated that argues that it is not. Work organizes the time and attention of the jailed, keeps them occupied, minimizes boredom and the opportunity to get into trouble. Social justice advocates seem to think that prisons should be like summer camps, with sports, crafts, and other pleasant diversions. That approach is both expensive and undeserved. Prison, among other things, is and ought to be punishment.

  • Is it ethical to pay prisoners less than the minimum wage? Isn’t forced labor with no compensation or minimal compensation virtual slavery?

Convicted prisoners forfeit most of their constitutional rights. Some forms of forced labor might rise to the level of cruel and unusual punishment, and prison labor is ripe for abuse (just ask Andy Dufresne, the protagonist of “The Shawhsank Redemption”), but criminals are a burden on society, and warehousing them is expensive. There is nothing unethical about requiring those who have imposed that burden to help alleviate it.

  • Are prison-based businesses like MassCor unethical?

 Cara Savelli, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Correction interviewed by the student journalist, defended the program, saying,

“MassCor is a voluntary program that helps inmates develop skills in useful trades that support their post-release success.  [The school reupholstering job] was exciting because it was not your typical reupholstering. Normally people drop off individual sofas and chairs from their homes. I think the auditorium chairs was kind of a new element.”

If prison labor itself isn’t intrinsically unethical, and it isn’t, I have a hard time seeing why MassCor would be unethical, unless the argument is that it creates unfair competition for non-prisoner-based businesses. Cliche’s research uncovered the other vendor that had vied to reupholster the auditorium,  Wellspring Upholstery Cooperative,   which hires low-skilled indoviduals, including ex-convicts, and pays them $13 to $25. The co-director of Wellspring told Cliche  that the business expected to have several school auditorium contracts a year, but have hardly had any in over five years because, he surmised, of prison labor options, which are cheaper because of the negligible labor costs.

Savelli responded that contracts with school corporations have the dual purpose of  allowing inmates to develop valuable, marketable skills, while the institutional clients receive a quality product at a reasonable price.

This is a balancing matter, a utilitarian ethics problem. I can see an objective analysis coming out either way, favoring the advantageous results for the state’s prison budget, the school’s budget, and the prisoners who get to do the job away from the prison facilities, or deciding that the harm done to the local non-prison business and its employees should outweigh those benefit. Personally, I’d choose the prisoners.

Predictably, Aleks Kajstura, a legal director at Prison Policy Initiative, takes the opposite view, arguing.

“I think everybody’s worse off. You have the taxpayers, who are now funding forced labor. You have the incarcerated folks, who got to do this work but should have been paid an actual salary for it, so I think there are no winners.”

Do you find that persuasive? I find it intellectually dishonest. Taxpayers aren’t funding “forced labor,” they are funding prisons, which they wouldn’t have to pay for if the poor, exploited scofflaws, jerks and sociopaths inside them didn’t break laws, hurt people and harm the economy because they never accepted the responsibilities of citizenship. Why should prisoners be paid an “actual salary”? They can learn that an actual salary is what law abiding citizens get and deserve as one of the benefits of the social contract. Prisoners have to constrain their expectations according to society’s need to compensate for the costs and trouble their crimes have created.

The New York Times tells us that that the high school class valedictorian saluted Spencer in his graduation day address, saying, “Members of our class pushed the school district toward the moral high ground through an expertly crafted piece of journalism on contracted prison labor.”

Moral high ground? That’s an unwarranted assumption, and based on knee-jerk virtue-signalling by accepting faddish progressive assumptions that have not been adequately considered or debated.


Sources: Seattle Times, New York Times


42 thoughts on “Prison Labor Ethics

  1. Isn’t prison labor a bit like giving a kid an allowance for doing chores? The prisoner and the kid both have their physical needs met, clothing, food, medical care, etc. If they want to purchase extras, they need to earn their own money. They can do so by working. Neither would be paid a ‘salary’ for their time, both would earn nominal dollar amounts for treats or other things desired, but not automatically provided. Giving someone an opportunity to earn money isn’t unethical, especially when that money is not needed to live, it’s only there for extras.

    • Parents don’t usually win $100,000 contracts off their kid’s chores, and if your parents were cheap enough to think a buck for six hours of labor was fair, I might think less of them.

      • Prisoners can choose not to work. I’ve had family members in state prison, so I’m familiar with how that system works. Keep in mind that these folks are in prison through their own actions/choices. While in prison, their physical needs are met. They don’t have to purchase food, pay rent, carry health care, etc. Any money earned is literally extra for them to spend as they choose. If providing for their family is an issue, perhaps non-criminal behavior would have been a wiser choice.

        • I was going to make this same comment. Their earnings are for 100% discretionary spending. The counter-point to this is that a prisoner might have a restitution obligation outside of the prison. In that case, I think the wage difference up to minimum wage should be collected and provided to satisfy the restitution obligations.

          Also, I’m fine with the “fancy accounting method” whereby a prisoner makes the minimum wage and then their wages are garnished down to $1/hr to pay for the cost of their incarceration. Working remains entirely voluntary, but it’s framed as a way to voluntarily help make amends for the burden you’ve placed on society. It’s not about earning the $1/hr, it’s about bettering yourself and making amends.

          • Tim your last paragraph was what I was to add.

            At issue should not be the use if prison labor but instead the fact that artificially lower costs from prison labor unfairly competes with the private sector.

            I have no issue with states contracting with prison industries for work at non market prices as I do not believe the private sector has a right to provide goods and services that the state has the capacity to produce as part of another core governmental program and for which uses taxpayer funds However, when the state bids on contracts from non profits then they are competing in the private sector they are effectively imposing a significant tax on private industry. These contracts do not prevent expenditures of taxpayer funds they reduce private economic activity, reduce private income and reduce demand for the post release labor they trained.

            Having run an post secondary educational program in Maryland’s correctional institutions I have come to the conclusion that inmates engaged as labor in MD’s State Use Industries should pay the equivalent of private sector apprentice wages to the prison labor. Inmates participating would be required to pay 25% of wages toward housing, 15% toward board 10% toward medical and and 17% for FICA and taxes. The remainder will be split between consumption and savings with a minimum of 20% going to a savings trust account available upon release.

            Inmates need to learn what it will take to survive in the real world. Most have never filed a tax return, paid rent or had much if any understanding of paying ones own way without subsidies.

            Inmates need carefully integrated life lessons, employment training and socialization skills. Currently, much of this is done with no integration and often in a complete vacuum.

            • Well said. I like all of the thoughtful replies on this subject that I genuinely think we could fix it here and provide a reform bill to Congress! (Delusional, I know, but still…that’s how empowering I feel reading the comments on EA on a regular basis.)

          • “Also, I’m fine with the “fancy accounting method” whereby a prisoner makes the minimum wage and then their wages are garnished down to $1/hr to pay for the cost of their incarceration. Working remains entirely voluntary, but it’s framed as a way to voluntarily help make amends for the burden you’ve placed on society. It’s not about earning the $1/hr, it’s about bettering yourself and making amends.”

            While I’m sure that this is why *some* of the prison population chooses to enter the prison workforce, I think this point of view suffers from an extreme amount of bias, I do not believe that that’s what the people taking part in that system are thinking, I think that’s the logic you apply to the situation in order to justify it.

            I think the reason I have so much dissonance from the group at large is that I’m Canadian and it seems like a specifically American Value to treat people in detention as shittily as possible and spin it afterwards. I don’t know how to sugar coat it: There are people in jail for years for crimes that range from possession of marijuana to drunken bar fights to rape to murder, and it seems like there’s this element of sadistic glee that some people get in making prison conditions as poor as possible and following it up with a very self righteous: “They had it coming!” and with this specific topic at hand: “They’re making reparations for their heinous crimes!”

            • I’d be interested in understanding the Canadian version of this and how it differs from the American version. Or does the incarcerated prison population in Canada just not have the option?

              • We have many of the same issues, but the systems are different; There is no such thing as a private Canadian Prison, for instance. The work performed is not industrial in nature, our cons usually have prison-upkeep jobs, or pick garbage by the side of the road. They’re still underpaid, similar to the American system: Their take-home is about $2 *after* deductions. But the real difference, I think, is the culture around prisoner treatment… See slickwilly’s comments below re: Air conditioning.

            • As is often the case, your later posting makes me understand where you are coming from better than the voice that lives rent free in my head can come up with.

              You and I agree that prison conditions can be worse than they need to be. Your ‘some Americans enjoy this’ points have some merit as well: I believe it is a cultural holdover from the days of the spaghetti western, where justice was clear cut and the law was always on the side of the white hats.

              However, we depart, I suspect (though evidence is still lacking for my presumption here) that we differ in what constitutes just conditions during incarceration.

              Let me explain my stance: the experience should be one which provides the offender the chance to learn from mistakes, and to prefer to never experience the deprivations of prison again. There are degrees as to how one makes the latter uncomfortable enough without abuse. Going to jail should be feared, especially by those who have already enjoyed the accommodations. (The former is all but a lost cause in our shared society, I fear) The ideal situation (and one at which the entire world has failed, not just America) would be that a debt once paid restores all rights.

              A secondary benefit to society is that offenders are no longer offending. This protects the public and is why I support the death penalty. Certain crimes deserve the ultimate sanction: come to Texas and kill someone, and we may just kill you back.

              There IS a simple solution to staying out of jail: don’t commit a crime. This is a rule of thumb, and has exceptions. While innocent men DO go to jail, a great many more guilty ones go free. Any justice system has flaws: we have to correct them as we find them, and as they can be corrected without causing worse damage.

              • I think we agree more than we don’t… But I’d like to point out, specifically in response to your “Going to jail should be feared” line, that there are layers and varieties of fear.

                I don’t think, for instance, that prisoners ought to be afraid for their life while in incarceration. I don’t think they should be in fear of being raped, and yet the former is far to common and more inmates than should call the latter a day that ends with the letter “y”.

                Take, for instance, the case that was discussed on this very forum of prison staff who decided to punish what they deemed bad behavior by putting inmates into scalding hot showers, which culminated in an inmate being boiled alive. I believe the coroner said during the autopsy process that the inmate’s skin sloughed off his body. Now, I don’t recall any of the commentariat here saying that this was well deserved treatment, so I temper my accusation of sadism a little, but there *were* people that said that, and I don’t believe that American courts saw fit to actually convict any of those staff members with even manslaughter.

                • Fear should not be for one’s health or safety. We agree that one’s person should not be violated. However, I do not think the actual statistics meet with your description. Being rape or murdered are not as common as TV would have us believe. It happens, just as abuse leading to death by administrators, but it is far more rare than you imply.

                  I am willing to be convinced. Can you give me any statistics to back your assertions?

                  • I have…. significant doubts that there would be anything approaching accurate rape statistics… but deaths? Absolutely.

                    Wikipedia says that the rate of deaths in Prison are about 200 per 100,000 annually, or 0.2%. That might not seem high, until you realize that the prison population is disproportionately men between the ages of 18 and 35. The rate of death for that demographic outside prison? Depends on where exactly you are, but generally less than 20 per 100,000 per year. Which means that prisoners are at least 10 times more likely to die in jail than they are outside it.

                    I would *love* someone to tell me that if a person convicted of marijuana possession didn’t want to die, they shouldn’t have broken the law. Preach brothers!

                    • Die? No. But the risks of prison are widely known, and if one does not know what one risks by breaking laws, then one’s ignorance is not to be a source of sympathy. Baretta’s law is still good: “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.”

                      And the prison population is all male and all criminal. Of course it’s more dangerous. 10X is less than I would have expected.

                    • Such stats fail to discriminate between types of penal institutions.
                      The liklihood of being raped or killed in a medium or minimum security institution is exponentially lower than in a super max facility. No one convicted of a basic drug offense goes to supermax facilities unless they have a history of serious violent crimes.

        • You’re saying that like it’s meaningful, but it actually reinforces what I’m saying: The difference in living standard between prisoners who choose not to work and prisoners who do is functionally zero. Meanwhile, prisoners who choose to work and generate value for the prisons they are in are paid what I consider to be slave labor for the enrichment of whatever facility happens to be holding them.

          You can get all righteous and preachy about how they came to be in prison, but despite the reality of their situation, the debt they owe to society is not financial.

          • Actually, in many cases where restitution is court mandated, the debt owed to society is financial. Prisoners can refuse to work. The opportunity to work has conditions, including the salary and work conditions. That is the deal.

            Here is a counter question: should prisoners be given air conditioned facilities? Remember that until very recently, prisons had no such accommodations. Seeing that this is true, why should the taxpayer pay for creature comforts in a situation designed to be punishment for crimes? Are current criminals less hardy than those of 50 years ago?

            • See my comment above re: the sadistic view some people have that because these people have committed a crime, we ought to treat them as shittily as constitutionally possible. I get the impression that people are genuinely bothered that you are not actively torturing inmates.

            • I mean, really…. The debt to society that these people incur *is* financial, so not only are we going to force them to pay this (admittedly self-imposed) debt, but we’re going to throttle their ability to actually pay that debt by paying them 17 cents an hour while righteously fart-huffing about how generous we’re being with their living accommodations? Give me a break.

              • I don’t think expecting people to avoid commiting crimes is judgy or preachy. I don’t think it’s sadistic to be thankful people who freely committed felonies are in prison, making the the general public safer.
                The average cost to maintain a US inmate is 36k. Much higher in some states, exceeding 60k per inmate. Tax payers fund state prisons, and the prison system as a whole. There are families who make less per year than it costs to house one inmate. Inmates are not tortured, they are not forced to work, they are not punished beyond their location and inability to roam free.
                As a tax payer, I already pay to maintain their food, housing, medical needs, and so on. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect the public to also pay a living wage to an inmate. I do think it’s reasonable to offset the cost of the correctional system to the tax payer by allowing prison systems to generate some of their own money.
                Finally, going to prison isn’t (and shouldn’t be) a trip to Disney. It’s not meant to be a good time. You hear stories of outrageous sentences for petty seeming things, but those are the exception, which is what makes them a good, heart-wrenching story. Mostly, people commit crimes and get sentenced accordingly.

                  • I don’t think I disagree with you in principle, but modern prisons are typically enclosed indoor facilities with complex ventilation systems with a healthy population of non-inmate workers. (Doctors, therapists, volunteers, guards, etc.) I don’t think the air has to be “air conditioned”, but there is a minimum standard to be applied.

  2. Prison labor has came a long way from “I was a fugitive from a chain gang” (1932) based on a true story:
    How horrible it is that prisoners will get a break from the tedium and fear of living in a state prison to do something useful with their lives and perhaps learn some new jobs skills that might help keep them from going back in prison after they’re released.

  3. I think I’d find the argument that paying prisoners less than a dollar a day was acceptable because they are a burden on society more persuasive if most of these prisons weren’t private institutions raking in billions of dollars annually on quasi-slave labor, and using that quasi-slave labor to out-compete the market at large. The fact that MassCor is a state prison partially mitigates that in this context, but at the end of the day you’re still having state prisons “employing” low cost labor to compete with taxpayers.

    From Global:

    “And in privately-run prisons, they receive as little as 17 cents per hour for a maximum of six hours a day, the equivalent of $20 per month. The highest-paying private prison is CCA in Tennessee, where prisoners receive 50 cents per hour for what they call “highly skilled positions.” At those rates, it is no surprise that inmates find the pay in federal prisons to be very generous. There, they can earn $1.25 an hour and work eight hours a day, and sometimes overtime. They can send home $200-$300 per month.

    Thanks to prison labor, the United States is once again an attractive location for investment in work that was designed for Third World labor markets. A company that operated a maquiladora (assembly plant in Mexico near the border) closed down its operations there and relocated to San Quentin State Prison in California. In Texas, a factory fired its 150 workers and contracted the services of prisoner-workers from the private Lockhart Texas prison, where circuit boards are assembled for companies like IBM and Compaq.”

    • What’s your alternative? (The privately run prisons is a separate ethics issue, and a good one.) Prisoners with non-violent offenses who can eb trusted can usually get work-release, which pays more than prison pay. To some extent, I view this issue a little like the camps on the border: how beneficial is it reasonable to make them? For some criminals, a competitive wage along with three meals and a place to sleep would seem like a good deal.

      • It’s a good question. Almost any work you get these people doing outcompetes someone who has not broken the law.

        It depends on what you want to do, how far the rabbit hole you want to go down, whether you’re morally opposed to prison labor at all, and how important economics are to you…

        As a somewhat out of the box idea, volunteerism is at an all time low. At $1 a day, having cons work at soup kitchens, recycling plants and habitat for humanity builds would still provide structure and activity, build skills, and fills a niche society needs…. All without someone getting rich off their mostly unpaid labor.

        To go the other way… Pay them something more than $1 a day. It doesn’t need to be minimum wage, it could take room and board into account, but it would bring this labor more in line with the market at large, and really… Anyone arguing that seventeen cents an hour is anything approaching reasonable needs to look in a mirror.

        • Maybe, and this wouldn’t be my choice, but maybe, If you aren’t opposed to prison work, and you somehow think a buck a day is fair, but you don’t want prisons outcompeting the market, force prisons to offer bids that are more in line with the market at large, and put the gains back into the tax pool.

          I mean, the optics on this are awful, reality isn’t much better, and not being able to come up with any workable alternatives seems indicative of a terminal lack of imagination.

          • The “Private Prison” is more troublesome to me and you’re right to highlight it. The difference between a government prison and private prison flips my opinion. With a gov prison, profits flow back to the government (read: Taxpayer) in some manner. With Private Prisons, they get paid by the taxpayer to care for each prisoner and then they get to earn an extra profit by going into competitive industries. Who gets that profit? Would the prison contract with the government be more expensive to taxpayers if the private prison were not allowed to exploit prison labor with regard to wage laws?

            For me, it’s ethical for the Government to run these programs, but not private prisons. It could be tenable to me if there was a “no-profit” rule, or all profits flow back to government. The prisoners, after all, are the government’s prisoners; they are not prisoners of the private prison administrators. The administrators are just that, administrators.

            • In Maryland the profits of State Use Industries does not revert to the general fund. My understanding is that any surpluses are retained by SUI.

              • Right, but money spent enhancing a government prison is a liability no longer needing to be included in the next budget. Even if it doesn’t actively reduce the taxpayer liability, it improves the facility, equipment, and ultimately the prisoner environment. So long as the funds are not being misused for the Warden’s Lobster Dinner Parties.

                Funds could be used to improve a prisoner technology lab & other benefits or they could be used to hire additional prison staff, or even paint a wall. The point is, it may not reduce or offset “cost” but it ultimately offsets “liability”.

                • Unfortunately, the upgrades,are often to reinforce the fiefdom of SUI.

                  If it was used to enhance the slill sets of the incarcerated I would agree. Unfortunately, the surpluses are used for line items that need higher levels of scrutiny because they benefit only those state employees high up in the classification rankings.

  4. This all sounds like practice for how to keep a population captive and productive. Administrators are learning what works, and how much people will allow without resistance.

    You didn’t think we would all just sit around when they open the re-education camps, did you?


  5. The Thirteenth Amendment:

    Article XIII (Amendment 13 – Slavery and Involuntary Servitude)

    Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. affects 11

    Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation. ratified #13

    The Constitution approves.

    • As I understand it, this is optional for inmates in most implementations, thus its not “involuntary” or “slavery”.

  6. I suspect the costs of supervision and transportation are much greater for prisoner workforces than for companies employing non-incarcerated persons. These costs could outweigh whatever is saved in employee compensation.

  7. In Tennessee we have TRICOR, the Tennessee Rehabilitation Initiative in Corrections, TRICOR manufactures office furniture as well as furnishings and fixtures for jails and prisons, performs data entry services and prints forms for state, county and municipal governments. All this work is performed in DOC facilities. As the Massachusetts DOC official pointed out, participation in these programs are voluntary, not “forced labor.” There is always a waiting list to participate. (

  8. As with other states Alabama has manufacturing facilities in some prisons. The best white board cleaner I’ve ever used is produced by the Alabama DOC program. Prisoners make everything from gazebos to office furniture. No, they aren’t paid minimum wage. Yes, there is a waiting list for those who want to participate. There are post-incarceration placement programs with construction firms and a name brand furniture maker. Those participating have lower recidivism rate. On the whole I think it’s better than just sitting and counting time.

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