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,

Continue reading