Aug 2, 2004
There were a record 6.9 million adults incarcerated, on probation or on parole last year in the United States. That is over three% of the adult population in the U.S. – the highest rate of incarceration of any country in the world.
The huge rise in the prison population is one of the casualties that has come after decades of job losses. While some people are forced to take lower paying jobs, others are simply pushed aside. Some, especially among young people, have never held a regular job. They are forced to make a living any way they can. And some turn to the streets and crime.
Eventually, many wind up in prison, only to discover they are now put to work on the same kind of jobs they couldn't get on the outside – but for little or no money.
Prison labor has become big business in this country. In 2002, over 70,000 prisoners in the U.S. produced goods and services worth over 1.5 billion dollars. The numbers have increased rapidly since then.
Prisoners represent a cheap and literally captive workforce for the many corporations who use them. They are paid much less than minimum wage, with much of their pay taken by the state. They get no vacations, are often made to work long hours, and cannot unionize. They are often harshly punished for complaining about working conditions.
Social movements, like the workers' movement of the 1930s, had for a period forced the U.S. government to restrict the use of prison labor. Laws passed in 1935 and 1940 outlawed interstate trade in convict-made goods and set limits on the size of federal contracts involving prison labor. Those laws were repealed in 1979 under President Jimmy Carter, with the "Justice System Improvement Act."
Yes, people in prison should have the right to a job – with the same wages that are paid outside. They should be given the training a job can provide.
As for the claim that prison labor as it's practiced today is a way to rehabilitate someone – that's a vile lie. It's a way to provide super profits for companies that get cheap labor.
Prison labor as it is today is nothing but the mark of a society going backward in time. It is like the period of the poor houses in England, which were supposed to provide a form of welfare, but really were a way to force people to work for very low wages.