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.