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Prison Labor or Slavery… You Decide

W. Scott Cole

Posted on September 3, 2018 01:53

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Prisons in America are full of inmates that need something to do. At the same time, the prisons need someone to do the work needed to keep the prison operating. So is using the inmates to do that work slavery or just the wise use of available resources?

Inmates do most of the work in prisons. Jobs include working in the kitchen, doing grounds maintenance, building maintenance, laundry, legal clerks, library clerks and janitorial work. Some states pay the inmates for their work, some, like Texas and Alabama, don’t. Those that do, pay very little.

Pay, for the states that do pay, ranges from four cents an hour (32 cents a day) in Louisiana and West Virginia to 40 cents an hour ($3.20 a day) in Wyoming. From that money, inmates are required to buy their soap, shampoo, deodorant and other toiletries. The average of all 50 states is 10.75 cents an hour (86 cents a day). In 2001, the average was 11.62 cents an hour (93 cents a day). That’s right, prisoner wages have gone down over time.

The truth is, inmates are not allowed to possess money in prison. Their wages and everything they “buy” are nothing more than numbers moved around in the state’s bookkeeping system. They earn the ability to “purchase” something of a little better quality than what the state gives to indigent inmates who, for whatever reason, have no job and therefore cannot buy their toiletries from the prison canteen.

On the other hand, busy inmates are not causing problems for guards and staff. Many, if not most inmates take pride in their work, no matter how menial it is. Even though they are being paid next to nothing and can only spend the pittance they earn by giving it back to the state, they still do the best they can.

This is more than pride in doing a good job, however. Prison inmates, for the most part, have empathy for other inmates. Kitchen workers, for instance, within the limits they are allowed, try to cook and serve the best food they can. They don’t have to imagine their selves in another’s shoes, because they are already in those shoes and they know that other inmates will notice and appreciate their efforts. The same goes for every other non-industry job in a prison.

The states know all this and take advantage of it. They save hundreds of thousands of dollars each year that they would have to pay non-inmate workers to do the same job. If there is a prison wide lockdown and staff has to do those jobs, they will be complaining about the work by the end of the first day and saying they don’t get paid enough to do inmates’ work.

So, if guards and administrative staff don’t get paid enough to do the work inmates make next to nothing doing, is it slavery to require inmates to do that work? Or is it states using available resources to get work done that nobody not convicted of a crime wants to do?

I call it slavery and believe that, because the state get benefits other than monetary savings from inmate labor, the inmates deserve to be paid a little more than they get.

W. Scott Cole

Posted on September 3, 2018 01:53

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