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Prisoners Work Programs: Needed Skills or Exploitation?

Renee Farris headshotWords by Renee Farris
Energy & Environment
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Cañon City, Colorado, sounds like a nice little place to live. According to the city website “a world of beauty and adventure awaits you.” Yes, a world of breathtaking scenery … and 13 prisons. Do you still want to vacation there?

For tourists there’s whitewater rafting, rocking climbing and canyons. When I was there I rode a bungee swing off a cliff. The benefits for prisoners, as you can imagine, are quite different. Their perks are much more modest: getting paid, mental stimulation and fresh air. While these benefits are limited, they beat  watching TV or lifting weights.

Inside a massive six-prison work complex, 4,000 prisoners perform a wide variety of jobs to maintain the facility like laundry, cooking food and mowing lawns. They also do labor for a variety of for-profit entities: Inmates create toys for kids, care for buffalo on feed lots and dairies, stitch sweatbands, carve zebra-wood fishing poles, break wild mustangs, give obedience lessons to dogs, pick blackberries, tend vineyards, harvest honey, create fiberglass, arrange flowers, and manage Hungarian partridges. While some might call this type of profiteering exploitative, prisoners seem to enjoy the more complex tasks these jobs provide.

James Scott, who served 23 years for murder, told Pacific Standard news: “In most prisons you don’t get this kind of freedom. And it helps us hold on to our humanity.”

Labor rights in the prison industrial complex are certainly a complex issue.

The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world with about 5 percent of the world’s population but almost 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Over 2 million people were incarcerated as of 2013.

Leaving aside the strict sentencing guidelines for non-violent drug offenses that cause prison overcrowding, that’s a lot of people. And keeping them imprisoned costs taxpayers a lot of money. The national average annual cost to incarcerate someone in 2014 was $30,619 (or $83 per day). In some places, the local cost is much higher. In New York City it costs $167,731 to feed, house and guard each prisoner.

These worker programs, advocates argue, help pay the bills while providing workforce training to inmates.

This is where Cañon City’s work program comes into play. The program director, Steve Smith, said the goal is to make prisoners productive citizens by giving them work. This way they become taxpayers instead of tax burdens. The prison earns $63 million per year from inmate labor and does not receive any financial support from taxpayers.

Not only does it save taxpayers money, but it also provides inmates with job skills so they have the opportunity to engage in a legal occupation when they are released. At least, that’s the intention. Whether working in Hungarian partridge husbandry prepares inmates for the job opportunities they'll likely find upon release is another question. But the opportunity is there.

Sometimes the job skills taught do match up well with what a prisoner may do upon release. One inmate who worked on the prison’s vegetarian and hormone-free tilapia farm was released and now manages a fish farm.

These prisons' industry selection is intentional. Prisons are typically required to make sure they don’t crowd out local companies, so they typically chose work with low competition like husbandry or craft-making. This choice is also politically prudent: It helps business leaders avoid the scrutiny of companies, organized labor and consumers. Alex Friedmann, an activist who spent a decade in jail, says: “Prison officials don’t want to get into industries that will cause businesses on the outside to go to the media and raise hell.”

At the Cañon City prison complex, laborers earn about $125 per month (or $1.50 per hour). This is much higher than the typical 50 cents per hour paid in most prisons. However, most of that money is likely to be eaten up by high commissary prices. Inmates often purchase food like ramen noodles to supplement bland prison food and they also have to pay for any personal hygiene products like deodorant. When inmates are released from prison, they are unlikely to have much saved up for living expenses while they look for a job. If they were paid more, perhaps they would have an easier reentry into the world and be less likely to engage in illegal activities that bring more money but also the penalty of imprisonment.

Critics argue that prison-work programs are essentially corporations that use slave-like labor to make a profit. When prisoners create products for the state (think: infamous license plates and street signs), or in-state companies, regulations are low. But when these contracts go to out-of-state corporations, the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIE) states that laborers must receive at least $7.25 per hour. After taxes, fees, required saving and restitution payments are made, most prisoners make $3 per hour.

Do these programs really rehabilitate inmates and teach them useful job skills? A promising study from economist Robynn Cox found that inmates who worked in a PIE program got jobs faster and earned more money upon release.

However, incarcerated workers can’t join a union and are not covered by protective labor legislation, which means there may be room for them to be exploited.

Prisons can also avoid federal PIE regulations by only contracting with in-state companies. For example, Cañon City sells goat's milk to an in-state company that makes goat cheese, which it sells locally as well as outside the state.

Although labor abuses are a concern, it seems like the Cañon City program strikes a balance of economic benefit for the company and a smoother transition into regular life upon release.

Colorado prisons produce 1.2 million pounds of tilapia each year. The next time you buy tilapia at Whole Foods, you might be eating tilapia raised on the prison grounds.

Image credits: Barry Staver and Pacific Standard article

Renee Farris headshotRenee Farris

Renee is a social impact strategist who works with companies to help them focus on key social and environmental opportunities. She loves connecting with people so feel free to contact her at renee.a.farris@gmail.com.

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