Beyond cheap labor: can prison work programs benefit inmates?

The old cliche is true: prisoners do make license plates. But that’s not all they produce. Across the country, inmates have a hand in building desks, molding dentures, grinding lenses for glasses, stitching flags and upholstering chairs. They run prison laundry rooms and kitchens, transcribe textbooks into braille, and even farm tilapia.

That incarcerated offenders often participate in prison work programs is nothing new. Today, however, this employment has taken on unprecedented scope, with computer coding and skilled manufacturing joining more traditional labor. Those who run these programs say the training they offer is essential for preparing prisoners to succeed in the outside world after release. Opponents, however, say these programs verge on enslavement, with inmates paid meager wages and denied the benefits and protections a civilian job would provide.

The debate came into sharp focus this fall when Whole Foods announced that, as of April 2016, it will no longer sell products with prison labor in their supply chains. Currently, the natural foods grocer offers Haystack Mountain Goat Cheese, made with milk sourced from a farm run by inmates in Colorado, and tilapia raised by another group of Colorado prisoners. Some customers, however, protested what they called the exploitation of low-paid prisoners, and Whole Foods decided to remove the products from its shelves.

“We felt that supporting supplier partners who found a way to be part of paid, rehabilitative work being done by inmates would help people get back on their feet and eventually become contributing members of society,” said Whole Foods spokesman Michael Silverman. “We want to make sure we are in tune with our customers’ wishes, so we have decided to stop selling products made by inmate labor programs.”

About 1.5 million people were incarcerated in state and federal prisons at the end of 2014, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. In the most recent Bureau of Justice Statistics census of the prison population, which uses 2005 data, 88% of the nation’s prisons had work programs of some kind. The vast majority of working inmates are employed in support roles within the prison: washing dishes, doing laundry, delivering mail. The wages for these jobs are a fraction of what similar work would earn outside of prison; in the federal prison system, for example, the pay range is between $0.12 and $0.40 per hour. A few states do not require prisoners to be paid at all.

A much smaller number of prisoners – 62,600, or about 4% of the total population – work in programs known as “correctional industries”. These programs produce goods and services that are sold to outside customers, often government agencies, schools, and nonprofits; it is through one of these programs that inmates were producing milk and tilapia destined for Whole Foods. Every state has its own correctional industries program and the federal prison system has a similar initiative called Unicor.

“They are coveted jobs,” said Beth Schwartzapfel, staff writer at the Marshall Project, a New York City nonprofit focused on criminal justice issues. “The work is actually interesting.”

Employees in these programs can receive wages slightly higher than those paid to other prison workers. In North Carolina, these jobs pay between $0.16 and $0.26 per hour, but workers can earn weekly bonuses of up to 30%. In Colorado, bonuses can bring monthly pay up to $400.

Critics often point to the disparity between the low pay earned by workers and the premium prices some of these products can fetch. And some economists have suggested that paying inmates at least minimum wage would have a positive effect on the national economy, by creating more spending power and reducing recidivism. Still, even at today’s wages, the high cost of security in a prison workplace eats up much of the potential profit. And in most states, the revenue from these sales is legally required to go back into improving and staffing the programs themselves. “They are not money-makers,” Schwartzapfel said.

Within the field of correctional industries, the Prison Industry Enhancement program employs about 5,000 people, usually in partnership with private industries who contract with the correctional system. These workers must be paid the prevailing wage for their work. For jobs like welding, the rate can range as high as $15 per hour, said Dee Kiminki, chief administrative officer of PRIDE Enterprises, Florida’s correctional industries program. Up to 80% of inmates’ earnings, however, can be garnished to go toward room and board, victim restitution, child support and mandatory savings.

Advocates of these programs believe working while incarcerated can teach inmates not just technical skills, but soft skills as well. Many offenders have never worked a legal job and need to learn the basics like showing up on time, listening to a supervisor and working as part of a team, said Gina Honeycutt, executive director of the National Correctional Industries Association.

Among those with knowledge of the prison work system, it is generally believed that work experience helps reduce recidivism rates; several states, including Florida, California and Washington, have numbers showing that their program graduates a far less likely than average to reoffend.

It is important to note, however, that participation in correctional industries programs is usually limited to the most trustworthy and motivated inmates, so it is hard to be sure exactly what factors lead to these lower recidivism rates. “You have a chicken-and-egg problem with recidivism studies,” Schrwatzapfel said.

In recent years, the focus of many work programs has shifted to concentrate even more on effective rehabilitation of inmates, Honeycutt said. “The transition in the last five years has been away from producing a product to producing a successful offender as our product,” she said.

To that end, the association in April released a guide outlining 10 steps correctional industries programs can take to maximize the good they do for employees. The suggestions include replicating private industry conditions as closely as possible within the prison, training prison staff to manage the specific training and mentorship needs of offenders, and providing comprehensive pre-release services for inmates.

Some states are already pursuing these guidelines. In North Carolina, for example, the agency Correction Enterprises works in 17 different industries; in each case, the agency partners with a formal certificate or apprentice program, allowing inmates to earn a recognized credential in fields ranging from welding to braille transcription.

Efforts to connect released prisoners to jobs are also essential to a successful program, supporters say. Florida runs a transition program that helps inmates find jobs post-release, Kiminki said. More than 60% of participants in the transition program find work, she said, with an average wage of $10 per hour. In North Carolina, Correction Enterprises staff actively recruits employers to take on released prisoners as employees.

Even if more programs are moving towards these models, opponents argue that prison labor is inherently exploitative. In both correctional industries programs and standard prison work, employees do not have the right to organize or negotiate for better working conditions, and have very limited opportunities to seek a better position. For some, these conditions make such programs indefensible.

“In America today, people are stuck on enslaving people that are in the criminal justice system,” said Paul Wright, the executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center, a vocal opponent of prison labor, and a former prisoner.

Wright also points to the potential for workplace injuries among inmates doing dangerous work and the limited opportunities prisoners have to seek legal recourse. Prison Legal News, a publication he edits, has raised questions about the safety of electronics recycling programs in federal prisons, for example. Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules say that the agency’s protections extend to inmates in jobs similar to other covered positions, but OSHA must go through prison officials to arrange visits or any contact with inmates.

The only way prison labor – Wright calls it “prison enslavement” – could be done well, according to Wright, would be to ensure safe workplace conditions, give inmates the right to organize and negotiate, and pay all workers at least minimum wage and let them keep all their earnings. He holds out little hope, however, that these conditions will ever be met. American society, Wright said, is too ideologically committed to using prisoners as a source of low-cost or free labor. “No one is talking about the notion that prisoners have rights or should be treated with any respect or dignity at all,” he said.

Supporters, however, say these programs – particularly correctional industries jobs – are best thought of as training rather than traditional work.

“They are not working to earn a wage,” said Correction Enterprises director Karen Brown. “They are working to learn.”

This story originally ran at TheGuardian.com on December 9, 2015.

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