A recent article was written on Alternet.org about America’s prison system that definitely needs more attention - the main reason being that I’m sure that most people are not aware of what’s going on.
As the article reports, prisoners in multiple states are being given jobs in the high tech industry that would normally be going to skilled, unionized workers. The main difference between the two types of workers (besides one being imprisoned) is that prisoners earn starting wages that hover around 23 cents per hour, with their maximum wages topping off at just over a dollar. Obviously, this is well below minimum wage, and this is the crux of the issue of prison labor.
As Eric Lotke, senior analyst for the SEIU points out, however, this has the potential to greatly affect the labor market:
At first, giving people in prison a job looks like a good idea. The prisoner gets the job skill and a few extra dollars, the state takes some payment to let it happen, and the industry gets the work done. But this is not a win-win situation. It’s actually a lose-lose. The person in prison is paid far less than a real wage negotiated by free people in a free market economy. So free-market wages are undercut, driving wages down in the real economy. Meanwhile, business gets an incentive to lock people up for convict labor and the state loses its financial incentive to improve its criminal justice policies.
To the defense of this system, the points given by Lotke in favor of prison labor are what many humanitarian groups have been pushing for. Plus, the article also reports that inmates who were given jobs tend to be less violent and less likely to commit a crime once released from jail.
Despite these positives, I can’t help but feel that this just isn’t right. I mean, these people are getting paid inhuman wages that one only expects to find in third world sweatshops, and then there’s this:
Last year, Georgia inmates went on strike at six prisons for over a week. They complained that they were beaten if they refused to work prison jobs for little or sometimes no pay.
Even if the humanitarian arguments are disregarded completely, the labor market could be destabilized (more than it already is) by this. Only 1% of imprisoned adults are involved in this labor system, but with more than 2 million people incarcerated in 2009, that’s a pretty sizable workforce. Why would a business pay union wages when it could - for lack of a better word - outsource it’s labor to prisons for 1/15th of the cost? Then there’s also the fact that now that we have privately owned for-profit prisons in this country, there is even more of an incentive for prison owners to house more inmates. With Citizens’ United on their side, influencing politicians to push for stricter drug laws and the like would be no problem.
I find no easy answer to this problem… Do we rehabilitate prisoners by teaching them skills that could help them later in life even if it means undercutting the labor market and increasing the incentives for private prisons to house more inmates? I’m not quite sure.