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December 19, 2011

Student guest-post asks great questions about prison labor

LaborSo far, one student has succeeded in earning extra credit by sending me "top-flight" guest posting material.  Here is the content of this guest-post (along with the picture) that was sent my way this past weekend:

One topic that we have not had time to discuss in detail in class this year has been prison labor.  See, for example, this article from the New York Times, published earlier this year and headlined "Enlisting Prison Labor to Close Budget Gaps."  And this article from the Dayton Daily Newss published about a month ago, which is headlined "Bureaucracy, politics hinder prison labor force," and explains problems with Ohio’s prison labor force.

As the first article explains, nearly all states have some form of prison labor, and the use of prison labor seems to be rising in response to cuts in federal financing and decreased tax revenue. Supporters of prison labor say that this could be a win-win for prisons because it could (1) allow prisons to use the labor to reduce their own costs and (2) help inmates develop skills which will help them to re-enter society. Because of these advantages, coalitions supporting prison labor have included both conservative budget hawks and liberal humanitarian groups.

But prison labor continues to have its share of critics as well (e.g. labor unions and civil rights advocates).  What do you think?  

Is prison labor a good idea?  

Does it matter whether it is required or voluntary?

Should it only be available to some inmates?

Other comments?

Students should remember that they can earn class participation by simply commenting on this effective post.  And the offer to send me guest-post fodder for extra credit remains open at least through this week.

December 19, 2011 in Class activities, Scope of imprisonment | Permalink


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I am a fan of the partially (mostly?) self-sustaining model of prison work at Angola Prison on Louisiana, where the prisoners run a large farm on the prison grounds that produce cabbage, corn, cotton, okra, onions, peppers, soybeans, squash, tomatoes, and wheat. They also raise cattle and have several manufacturing facilities that support the prison.

I understand that labor union argument, but in this circumstance, it's a relatively weak argument because the prisoners are not going out into town and taking jobs that could be performed by others, specifically those in labor unions.

I whole-heartedly disagree with the humanitarian argument: get over yourself, they are in prison....it's not supposed to be fun or voluntary. They are getting their comeuppance. I also like Warden Burl Cain's argument that the work makes the prisoners tired and less likely to cause mischief in any free time they may have.

See the wikipedia entry:


Posted by: Bradley Newsad | Dec 19, 2011 9:08:42 PM

One thing I'd like to be better explored is work not only in prison but as an alternative to it. We make people do community service hours for minor offenses, why not make them work for the state? Sometimes you hear about prisoners doing things like highway cleanup, and I could just as easily see convicts who are not in prison do similar work as an alternative to fines or short jail stays.

Posted by: Colin P | Dec 20, 2011 8:07:18 AM

Though I feel prison labor unfairly competes with free market labor, if such a plan is pursued I like Bradley's idea of a self-sustaining model. Such a model allows for greater oversight of the prisoners and their activities. Allowing for greater oversight would help curb the possibility of contraband smuggling rings as were seen in Ohio's Governor's Mansion inmate work program, which received a lot of negative attention and may have affected the public perception of the efficacy of such programs.

Posted by: Adam C | Dec 20, 2011 11:51:06 AM

I agree that these types of programs can be good, voluntary or not, as long as there is sufficient oversight and a reasonable maximum amount of forced labor per week. The Angola Prison seems like a great model. It looks like they even publish a nationally award winning magazine.

It becomes a tougher question if the program is not profitable. But if the cost to the government is minimal, the programs may still be worth it because there may be savings for the government in the long-term if these programs lead to lower rates of recidivism (lowering prison populations overall).

Posted by: Rees Alexander | Dec 20, 2011 3:14:26 PM

I support prison work programs because prisoners may learn valuable vocational and social skills, which may help them to readjust after release.

Posted by: Harrison Markel | Dec 21, 2011 2:08:21 AM

I agree that I think prison labor such as this is a good thing. Harrison brings up a good point that this teaches them some sorts of skills and at least a little bit of work ethic that might help them succeed once they are released.

Posted by: Sean B. | Dec 21, 2011 8:54:03 AM

I recall that our prison system actually started out teaching vocational skills to prisoners while keeping them in a socially deprived state.

Although I see the value in prison labor as training, I can't help but be reminded of "The Shawshank Redemption" where the warden implements a system of prison labor to make himself money by skimming off the top. Of course, this is loaded with issues but overall I think putting prisoners to work is a good thing. Maybe the saying that "idle hands are the devil's workshop" is particularly true in for prisoners.

Maybe the self-sustaining work model eliminates some of these concerns. It's encouraging to see some innovation taking place though.

Posted by: Alejandro Abreu | Dec 21, 2011 10:25:34 AM

The evidence of repeat offenders leads me to believe that the environment within prisons is not enough of a disincentive to keep offenders from returning. If prisoners were required to work, I think it would deter some criminals even more than mandatory minimums. No, I do not think prison labor should be optional, because that would not serve as a punishment to prisoners nor aid in deterrence.

Additionally, American taxpayers' money is currently housing and feeding prisoners nationwide. Self-sustained prisons would free up tax dollars for more useful federal/state government projects.

Posted by: Crystal M | Dec 21, 2011 11:57:39 AM

Great thoughts and as others have pointed out, how do you fund it? Already our states are cutting funding to legal aid. However, if I were a newly graduated attorney without any job prospects, it would be a great resume builder to get out there and do pro bono work for the poor. If you are unemployed and not making anything, why not be unemployed and not make anything while helping others!!!

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