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,

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Comment of the Day: “Ethics Dunce: Fox News”

Bradley then, Chelsea now.

Bradley then, Chelsea now.

Responding sharply to a commenter’s expressed criticism of the argument that convicted classified data leaker Bradley, now Chelsea, Manning, sentenced to Federal prison and seeking treatment as a trans-gendered female, ought to have his treatment needs served by prison authorities at public cost, Ethics Alarms’ own expert on such matters (from Australia), provided this fascinating overview of U.S. law and medical ethics on the topic. Here is zoebrain’s Comment of the Day on the recent post flagging Fox News’ juvenile mockery of Manning’s gender issues, Ethics Dunce: Fox News:

“There are two disputes here. The first is whether prisoners have a right to medical treatment, and if so, to what degree.I’ll deal with that first.

“Brown v. Plata 131 S.Ct. 1910 (2011):  “To incarcerate, society takes from prisoners the means to provide for their own needs. Prisoners are dependent on the State for food, clothing, and necessary medical care. A prison’s failure to provide sustenance for inmates “may actually produce physical ‘torture or a lingering death.’ ” ….Just as a prisoner may starve if not fed, he or she may suffer or die if not provided adequate medical care. A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society.” Continue reading

Is Flogging More Ethical Than Incarceration?

Ah, those were the good old days!

Peter Moskos is about to publish a book entitled “In Defense of Flogging.” He’s not really advocating a return to the Cat O’ Nine Tails, however, but engaging in a so-called “thought experiment”, which Moskos, an assistant professor of law, police science, and criminal-justice administration at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, summarizes at the end of his article on the topic (in the Chronical of Higher Education) like this:

“So is flogging still too cruel to contemplate? Perhaps it’s not as crazy as you thought. And even if you’re adamant that flogging is a barbaric, inhumane form of punishment, how can offering criminals the choice of the lash in lieu of incarceration be so bad? If flogging were really worse than prison, nobody would choose it. Of course most people would choose the rattan cane over the prison cell. And that’s my point. Faced with the choice between hard time and the lash, the lash is better. What does that say about prison?”

I’ll answer that:  it says that imprisonment is a better and more efficient punishment for serious crimes than flogging, and who didn’t know that? Continue reading