Work in prison is vital. It gives inmates rare privacy, glimpses of humanity. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t get paid what their labor is worth.
Conditions of modern prisons — tiny, overcrowded cells, lack of sanitation, infestation, lack of ventilation — make people inside so desperate for respite that they’re sometimes willing to accept even unconscionable deals, like working for little to no money.
Paying someone 86 cents per hour to do backbreaking work is such an insult to human dignity that it’s not acceptable anywhere in this country except in prison, places intent on stripping people of their humanity.
As former inmates, we know what it’s like to work for meager pay.
And we did it willingly, almost happily — for the chance to get out of our cells, use a private bathroom, walk freely. That’s the invidious part of prison labor. It makes you so grateful for tiny slices of humanity that you’re willing to do anything to get them.
Work in prison is rarely voluntary. And inmates who are currently striking against near-slave conditions won’t have it easy. Some may be placed solitary confinement. Their disciplinary records will get marred, and that could be used against them during hearings for discretionary release, like parole.
But they are willing to risk punishment and surrender the small moments of purpose that unjust work can bring for the larger goal of saving their humanity.
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The new American slavery
Convict leasing — a legalized form of enslavement that lasted well after the institution was outlawed — once dominated prison labor in America, and today’s combination of low-to-no wages and lack of choice in working conditions smacks of the same treatment.
Prisoners at Louisiana’s Angola facility — which is located on a former plantation — work for as little as four cents an hour.
One of us knows what it’s like to participate in a prison strike.
A 2013 hunger strike that started in California’s Pelican Bay solitary housing unit soon spread to 30,000 prisoners across the state who joined in solidarity.
Like the inmates who are striking now, we were demanding an end to slave-like conditions — not involving pay, but instead indefinite and inhumane isolation.
During our years in prison, we heard staff use every word but slavery to describe our treatment and prison labor practices. Some, laughably, called prison jobs unpaid “internships.” By law, an internship has to benefit the intern more than it does the employer. Inmate labor is the engine of prisons. The menial work that we did benefitted the state more than it did us.
We recognize the argument against the nationwide call for higher wages: If you raise pay, the state might pull back on the work given to inmates in order to cut expenses. Inmates would lose out on the chance to get out of their cells, and all the perks that come with the privilege.
But states also charge inmates for the cost of their incarceration. Not only are prisoners working for next to nothing, they’re also paying for the opportunity to do so. Inmates have been charged for room and board, medical fees, booking, sentencing, DNA tests. Families are sometimes charged for visits.
The road to fair treatment and pay could start by dropping charges for basic care for those who work in the facility. It costs about $33,000 on average per year to imprison an inmate. A decade of full-time labor should offset this, but it doesn’t.
Just compensation takes many forms
There are other ways to be fair about inmate compensation that also benefit the public.
Earlier this month, the Prison Policy Initiative released study showed that former inmates are about 10 times more likely to live on the street than the average American. A day of post-release housing, redeemable by voucher, for every day worked would not only make prison labor a legal business transaction, it could reduce homelessness and help many people who have nowhere to go when they leave custody.
Prison labor is about as uneven an exchange as one could imagine.
It also sends a damaging message to inmates — that they deserve to be desperate. Devaluing your life is a loyal lesson. It follows you home when you leave custody. Unemployment among former inmates is 27%. Many former prisoners agree to work for free to prove themselves. These aren’t internships either. They’re unpaid auditions that other job applicants don’t endure.
The prison strike demands an end to these practices, which is reasonable. All they’re asking is for a fair deal.
Chandra Bozelko is the vice president of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries. Ryan Lo is a 2016 Soros Senior Justice fellow and the founder of UnLabeled Digital Media. Both are fellows with JustLeadership USA, an organization dedicated to cutting the prison population in half by 2030.
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