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  • Writer's pictureEd Epping

Laboring Under Mass Incarceration

Updated: Aug 7, 2019

Scholars, activists, and prisoners have linked the exception clause in the Constitution's 13th Amendment to the evolution of a prison system that incarcerates black, brown and poor people at an elevated rate than white people.

Through a convergence of events, the passing of the 13th Amendment in 1865 directly links to southern states rewriting laws and creating "black codes" that criminalized new types of attitudinal offenses punishable by incarceration.

Prisoners were put to work by white planters and industrialists in what was termed "convict-leasing." They made money from this labor, but the prisoners did not. “The criminal justice system was strategically employed to force African Americans back into a system of extreme repression and control, a tactic that would continue to prove successful for generations to come.” Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow.

Banned in the 1920s, "convict-leasing" was replaced by chain/work gangs and eventually corporations moving into some federal and state prisons to establish an "economical" workforce for the production of their products. The Prison Industry Enhancement (PIE) program mandates this system, in which inmates are employed by a private business that has contracted with local correctional authorities for low-cost labor. The majority of inmates, however, work for the prisons in which they are incarcerated. Their employer, the government, does not make a profit but they do hold down costs by paying little for the completion of essential jobs.

Currently, 700,000 of the 2,200,000 million people in US prisons and jails work for as little as $.16 per hour. The average of all paid incarcerated workers is $.86 per hour. (Prison Policy Initiative, 2017) The state of California, an example of one employer, saves up to $100 million per year by recruiting incarcerated people as "volunteer" firefighters.

A typical rational used for justifying the labor systems in prisons is the supposed preparation for the inmate upon reentry. Proper training in prison, it is argued, will lead to gainful employment when released.

From the online home page of UNICOR (formerly the Federal Prison Industries program), providing a foundation of inmate labor:

" Why should inmates be given an opportunity to work?

It is important to remember, first and foremost, that individuals are sent to prison AS punishment and not FOR punishment. Forcing prisoners to perform harsh, strenuous, and meaningless labor does not meet the goals of a modern correctional system.

Nowhere in Federal law does it provide that offenders should be restricted from meaningful, productive work opportunities as part of their sentence. In fact, Federal statute specifically requires all able-bodied inmates to work in some capacity. Today, prison work is recognized for its rehabilitative potential.

When inmates perform productive work, they acquire marketable skills, ranging from a basic work ethic to trade-specific expertise. These skills improve self-esteem and enhance the prospect for post-release success."

Heather Ann Thompson, the author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the Attica Prison uprising and expert on prison labor at the University of Michigan, offers a different view. “The evidence is overwhelming that the jobs most prisoners do are not likely transportable to the outside.". Thompson said the use of a prison labor force was more beneficial for the correctional facilities.

Besides, a majority of felons are not permitted post-release job positions based on their criminal record. Take the case of the California firefighters. Though trained by professional wildland firefighters and experienced by their work in the field, once they are released from prisons the formerly incarcerated are unable, as felons, to apply for the paid wildland firefighter positions.

The US criminal justice system has historically relied on a network of punishment and exploitation instead of rehabilitation. There is a historical correlation between a society's regard for the "self" and its view of imprisonment. Demonstrated respect for the will of others, establishes a society viewing incarceration as a means of rehabilitation. Resulting policies encourage and respect education, work-training, and value of the individual's potential. When that same society shifts to low regard for the self, the value of the individual is diminished and demeaned, and the capacity of that individual judged without the potential for change. The relationships of labor and value are not qualities assigned only to commodity production but very much include all individuals that work.

When meaningful rehabilitation practices are regularized, recidivism rates decrease. Generating self-esteem is associated with significant work and pay, education + training, counseling for re-entry after incarceration and removal of labor hiring practices that are biased against the formerly imprisoned; (e.g., removal of "the box" on job application forms).

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