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Think prison labor is a form of slavery? Think again

We hear incessant calls for more "programs" for prisoners.  I am skeptical of many programs, but one that I agree we need more of is simple employment.  Former prisoner Chandra Bozelko has this op-ed in the LA Times explaining the value of prison labor and why critics who oppose it are hurting the people they claim to be helping.

When a prison inmate prays for release from her cell, prison industries can be her first salvation. I couldn't wait to head to work in the kitchen of the maximum-security women's prison in Connecticut where I did six years for identity theft and related crimes. I was paid 75 cents to $1.75 a day to make and serve a lot of casserole. Yet I consider most of the criticism lobbed at prison labor -- that it's a form of slavery, a capitalist horror show -- unfair, and even counterproductive in the effort to reform the justice system.

Among the firefighters on California's fire lines this fall, 30% to 40% are inmates, paid $1 an hour to work side by side with crews making a lot more money. Some inmate firefighters have gone on the record saying they feel the same way I do about prison jobs. It's people on the outside who rail against prison work assignments, particularly hiring prisoners to fight fires.
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Any change for good that happened within me while I was incarcerated grew out of my job.
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Whole Foods used to sell goat cheese made from milk produced on a prison farm in Colorado. "We felt supporting suppliers 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," a company spokesman said. Whole Foods ended the program in 2015, after consumer protests I can only assume came from people who've never been incarcerated. Anyone who's done time wouldn't deny a fellow prisoner that kind of lifeline.
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Prison work isn't just another battlefield in the fight between labor and capital, however justified that fight may be. Work is more than a wage, it's an expression of humanity, and that is especially true in prison. To even consider ridding our prisons of inmate work assignments is dehumanizing to the thousands of firefighters who are risking their lives in California. Keeping them on the fire line is one of the best things the state can do for its citizens, incarcerated or not.


I actually agree, having represented people who served in fire camps. The problem is that, because of bars on employing felons, many of the highly trained firefighters can't get jobs doing that work once they get out, which seems bizarre, especially since California has a shortage of firefighters. We as a society need to to a much better job of opening opportunities to people who have served their sentences, especially those who have done it as bravely as these firefighters. We could also pay them a bit more given that they are estimated to save the state around $100 million. The same goes for other inmate jobs.

"Maximum security" for identity theft? Or, are we glossing over the "related crimes"?

Interesting question. I suspect that it was misbehavior within prison rather than crime of commitment that landed her in max. I did a quick search of her blog and didn't find the reason.

And for my part, fuzzy, I agree that we need to do better at opening opportunities. I would not go so far as to support meat-axe approaches such as "ban the box," but that does not mean we have to stick with the status quo.

Kudos to the author. I agree 100% with her.

Another point. Prison jobs are often the only place where inmates learn a useful skill. Believe it or not, many have zero idea how to do basic things we take for granted like how to clean a toilet or even hold a mop.

Finally, they learn soft skills and even get references. I know many job supervisors and vocational instructors who taught interviewing skills, wrote job recommendations upon release, etc.

Tarls, for those who are not regular readers of the blog, can you state what your experience is in this area?

Sure, Kent.

I was an academic teacher in the NYS Department of Corrections for almost 12 years (ending in 2009). My closest friends and colleagues are/were vocational instructors who I worked very closely with to develop actual skills that inmates could use on the outside. For example, I would be working on fractions the same time our carpentry instructor was teaching his class (many of the same students) how to use a ruler.

We had carpentry, janitorial, general maintenance, masonry, drafting, computer, plumbing, and electrical classes. (I may have missed a couple). Once they graduated the vocational classes (with a NYS Department of Education vocational certificate that was good on the outside with no reference to earning it in prison), they would get facility jobs with the maintenance staff, be janitors on the housing unit and school, etc. They would get paid more because of their training and had more freedom, often lugging around a toolbox with Class A tools unattended by the civilian staff.

As I stated previously, we also worked on "soft skills", things we all take for granted. Show up on time. Be clean. Be respectful. They never got those things as kids. The better ones often leveraged their experience into outside jobs because of the certificate and the recommendations from their staff supervisors.

Just to give the opposite side of the coin...

To be clear, for every inmate who wants to work, keep busy, or improve himself, there is another who would prefer to lay in his bunk all day and considers being forced to work "slavery." (Yes, they use the word.)

They are the ones who do nothing to the best of their abilities and then get in a panic six months before a parole hearing because doing nothing does not look good. They are also the ones who complain when they do get out that there was nothing for them in prison. You see a lot of it in the academic classes, where someone who could not spell "GED" when he came into the class is angry that you could not help him get one in three months.

Just like anything else, you get out of prison what you put into it. For a great number of inmates, they are just too emotionally damaged to care. Prison is too late in the game to be a help for many. I think we have to try but an argument can be made that forcing people to improve themselves is not a very successful model.

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