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Prisoners, Work, and Markets

Professor Stephanos Bibas has been guest-blogging at SL&P about his new book.  The main theme is how punishment has changed since the old days, and not all of the changes are good.  In today's post, he focuses on prisoners working.

Prisons must change from dens of idleness and crime to places of public accountability, mandatory work, and sustained reform. First and foremost, prisons must force all able-bodied prisoners to work. Governments could abolish restrictions on trade in prison-made goods and prevailing-wage requirements, relying on competitive bidding to raise wages. While medium- and maximum-security inmates would have to work in prison for security reasons, minimum-security inmates could transition back to the outside by working outside of prison, as many already do in halfway houses. Inmates might even be able to prove themselves to employers and so have jobs waiting for them upon release.
On this point, I mostly agree with Bibas.  Of all the reforms we can make within prison, actual employment for every prisoner should be at the top of the list.

Politically, though, is it possible to "abolish restrictions on trade in prison-made goods"?  No.  Organized labor remains a politically potent opponent.  Just picture the news story of a factory closing, laying off its workers, and laying the blame on competition from prison-made goods.

The answer, in my view, is to identify segments of the market where substantially all of the competing goods are imported.  In today's global economy, there are plenty of such segments.  Prison-made goods should be unrestricted in commerce where the competition is substantially all imported, and the prisoners need not be paid wages comparable to outside workers, or even minimum wage.

As an affirmative incentive to work, allow prisoners to purchase an upgrade to their accommodations with a portion of their earnings.  If you were in prison, how many hours would you work to have an individual prison cell, or even a small, enclosed room, rather than sharing a cell with Spike?  As many hours as it took, probably.

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