In response to the lowest national unemployment rate in decades, some business owners are employing a previously stigmatized demographic: inmates. While prison labor has a long, exploitative history, Utah legislators and employers should ensure both inmates on work release programs and former prisoners have access to jobs, competitive wages and compassionate mentoring to help address the overwhelming problem of recidivism.
Reports from The New York Times and The Washington Post have highlighted the influx of current and former prisoners in the workforce — a trend that former treasury secretary Lawrence Summers attributes directly to applicant scarcity. The reports highlight a model of work release programs for inmates used in a handful of states such as Indiana and Nevada, and it’s an initiative legislators should consider as they work toward the long-term project of criminal justice reform. Legislating this policy could help boost the image of former inmates as well, creating more opportunities for this vulnerable demographic.
Labor is legally required for prisoners across the country. The Bureau of Prisons runs a program called Federal Prison Industries that pays inmates less than a dollar an hour for hard labor, often on an assembly line. This model regards prisoners as a source of cheap labor, forcing inmates to work difficult jobs without benefits or protection. In Utah, prisoners are not allowed to work at local businesses. Instead, they “may work basic jobs in their housing units or apply for jobs with Utah Correctional Industries.” In prison, their wage is roughly $0.40 per hour; at UCI, they can be paid a maximum of $1.75 an hour.
Across the country, prisoners can also be contracted — for less than a dollar an hour — to work for the profit of major companies such as Whole Foods, McDonald's and Walmart. Such programs purport to provide skills to inmates; however, they also are rooted in the history of exploitation in the prison industry, which expanded mandatory labor laws in post-Civil War America when the 13th Amendment banned slavery “except as a punishment for a crime.”
Some states, however, have adopted more empowering methods of employment, and compassionate work release programs illuminate the ethical path forward for the prison industry. Prisons should see to it that all inmates receive job training to prepare them to enter the workforce upon release. Additionally, replacing Federal Prison Industries labor with work release programs allows inmates to leave prison for the day to work for minimum wage, at the very least.9 comments on this story
State legislators have a responsibility to ensure that the criminal reform system is truly a reformative effort. This includes offering inmates greater access to job training, opportunities to work with competitive wages and compassionate mentoring to help citizens gain the skills they need to succeed.
Public policy analysis suggests work release programs for inmates correlate with reduced recidivism and increased likelihood of employment after incarceration. This is a commonsense solution to creating the reform and rehabilitation that prisons are intended to foster. Replacing exploitative labor practices with compassionate models of employment will better help inmates escape the revolving door of incarceration and get on their feet with the skills they need.