Cashing In On Convicts?

by Dish Staff

Josh Kovensky evaluates the economics of prison labor, arguing that minimum wage should apply behind bars:

[T]he reason that prison labor saves money is that inmates aren’t treated like the rest of the country’s labor force. [Former prisoner Bob] Sloan, for instance, has seen a shift in prison labor since he left his program. “It’s no longer dedicated to improving skills of inmates but directed to getting the highest profits [prison labor organizations] can get.” These prisoners lack virtually all of the basic rights that Americans “on the outside” take for granted: minimum wage, worker’s compensation if injured in an accident, the right to unionize. It may seem like this is saving us money, but in fact our economy loses out because of it. Estimates vary, but some analyses show that prisoners’ potential economic output could add up to $125 to each US citizen annually, if inmates worked at the minimum wage. So not only does this present problems on basic humanitarian grounds, but the economic benefits of prison labor would be even greater if the prisoners were afforded the same working rights as America’s free population. …

There’s a certain hypocrisy that exists with regard to prison labor. The population is fine to have offenders out of sight and out of mind, so long as the effects are invisible. But there are countless people who want to reform and receive little benefit for doing so, and countless more who remain unemployed even while wanting to learn a skill that might help them break whatever cycle of crime and poverty in which they find themselves trapped. A lot of human potential rots away in our nation’s jail cells. As [economist Tom] Petersik observed, “When a fire is approaching our home, that guy sitting in a cell becomes our best friend. So you sit back and think, are we using these people effectively in the first place?”