Ethics Quiz: Prison Labor

Voters in Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont are voting next month on measures that will eliminate an exception to prohibitions against slavery or involuntary servitude when forced labor is part of the punishment for a crime. In Alabama, for example, the State Constitution would be amended to remove an exception that allows involuntary servitude “for the punishment of crime.” The U.S. Constitution also has an“exceptions clause” that allows convicted criminals to be forced into involuntary servitude.

The clause is found in the 13th Amendment, which was ratified in 1865: “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.”

If such a measure passes, forced prison labor could be challenged a a violation of Constitutional rights. “We do not need to enslave people in order to punish them,” the New York Times quotes on former prisoner and an advocate of the proposed legal changes as saying, a typical example of lazy advocacy. No, we don’t need to make prisoners work as part of the prison experience. That’s not the issue. The question is whether society is acting unethically when it does so. Right now, absent an elimination of the prison exceptions to involuntary servitude, the practice is legal.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is….

Is it unethical to make prisoners work while incarcerated for little or no compensation?

Some points as you ponder this:

  • The American Civil Liberties Union  reported this year that prisoners produced more than $2 billion in goods annually and provided more than $9 billion worth of services while being paid an average of 13 to 52 cents per hour.
  • My reaction to that: GOOD. Incarcerating criminals costs society a lot of money that could be used more productively. Crime forces society to spend money on law enforcement, courts and social services. I see nothing unethical in making criminals who have been apprehended and proven guilty help reimburse society while serving prison time.
  • Many former prisoners oppose eliminating  prison work because it allows them to learn new skills and have something productive to occupy their time.

I have never had an ethics problem with society deciding that those who refuse to abide by the laws and rules of the social contract may forfeit “unalienable rights,” including the rights to liberty, voting, and when appropriate, life itself. I view these ballot initiatives as another feature of the surging “decriminalize crime” fad as part of the assault on imagined “systemic racism.”

9 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Prison Labor

  1. Although the noted provision for involuntary servitude as punishment for crime exists in Article 1, Section 8 of Tennessee’s Constitution, no inmates here have actually been forced to work in many decades. There are minimally compensated state prison industries where inmates learn job skills and good work habits, and some totally uncompensated unskilled work details in or around prison facilities, but all are strictly voluntary. Inmates participating in monetarily uncompensated work are rewarded by reductions in their sentences, often one day of sentence reduction for every day of work for minimum security inmates. I don’t see the proposed amendment making any practical difference here. Of course, this prompts the question of why the change was proposed.

  2. I worked for a while at San Quentin. I never heard an inmate complain about various work details. It was , as they said, better than sitting in the cell.

  3. My dad sold farm equipment to the Dade County jail in Miami. The prisoners grew their own vegetables on what has long since been a City of Miami golf course. Too bad the farm was closed.

  4. I would advise caution regarding anything that creates an incentive for the state to ensure that more people go to prison. For-profit prisons already have huge problems with them.

    That said, I appreciate your points about offsetting the costs of incarceration. I think a better way to reduce those costs would be to invest in healthier communities to reduce crime.

    I also appreciate Jim Hodgson’s points about prison labor being a voluntary path of rehabilitation, self-improvement, and reward for good behavior. That seems like a good system.

      • Not individuals, but like I’ve said here before, in the land of the free:

        More things are illegal.
        More illegal things will land you in jail.
        Jail terms are longer.
        And there’s a profit motive.

        I would put absolutely astronomical sums of money on a bet that if America did away with private prisons, prison populations would decrease by 10% raw numbers in less than a decade.

      • Didn’t a former California AG who has since gone on to bigger and better things once find herself in the middle of a fight to prevent certain prisoners from being released because they were needed by the state as free labor in fighting wildfires?

        Yes, those guys weren’t sent to prison expressly for that purpose, but if they were denied release that they were otherwise eligible for just because of the value of their labor, that seems like a flaw in the system.

  5. I meant to weigh in earlier because I have direct experience working with prison programs and State Use Industries in Maryland (SUI). Between 1989 and 1995 I ran the Hagerstown Community College program at the prison complex in Hagerstown, MD.

    The issue is not whether or not inmates should be paid it should be how they are paid and what they are paid. At least in Maryland, every inmate who is assigned to some type of day program is paid. For the college students it amounted to about $20 per month. Trade students or GED students were probable the same, but I have no data to support that. Pre-release inmates and those assigned to SUI who were creating value for others made something slightly less minimum wage. With that said, then the cost of housing an inmate in Maryland was about $22K per year which the taxpayers for which the taxpayers of MD paid.

    It should be painfully obvious to anyone that is not in the business of ensuring a continual supply of criminals that will maintain relatively high wage occupations for free citizens with limited education that paying people a little bit to attend school or exploiting them for the purpose of bolstering SUI funding will not teach the offender much of anything or worse will create resentment when they are discarded to the streets with little money in their pockets when their sentence is up.

    I have been a proponent of paying inmates some type of reasonable wage – if they are working a job that creates value for others – but also then deducting certain amounts for food, housing, recreation, and health care. In order to make this functional, some residual amount must be ensured the inmate receives so that he or she can make purchases in the commissary for their personal items, snacks and perhaps even enough for restitution payments or savings for post release needs. Using this method does not require any added cash outlay and may actually provide for a truer cost picture of housing such inmates because it factors in the value created. These wages can be scaled according to what program the inmate has been classified to and the costs associated with that individual’s incarceration can be calculated as a percentage of the wages paid so all inmates can begin to learn the responsibilities of adulthood.

    Managing inmates in a manner that approximates real world adult responsibilities will yield significantly better results than simply giving food, housing, recreation and health care and a minimal stipend for engaging is some type of program. Further, such a methodology allows parole boards to have a quantifiable record of achievement in the system which will allow them to make better decisions when it comes to parole

    I have seen people make 180 degree turns in their lives when they are given an opportunity to demonstrate they can behave within the parameters of normal social norms. Unfortunately, far too many do not get the type of engagement needed to help them confront their distorted ideas about the world. It takes time, patience, and the willingness of others to challenge the beliefs held by most inmates in a manner that allows the inmate to come to a far different conclusion about his or her life choices.

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