The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Stateline piece headlined “Advocates Seek to Make Prison Work Voluntary,” and also by the recent ALCU report, Captive Labor: Exploitation of Incarcerated Workers. Here are excerpts from the Stateline piece:
Prisoners making license plates is a popular stereotype, but most of the nation’s 800,000 incarcerated workers hold jobs more similar to those on the outside: They cook and serve food, mop floors, mow lawns and cut hair.
Unlike other workers, though, the incarcerated have little say, if any, in what jobs they do. They face punishment if they refuse to work and are paid pennies per hour — if that.
The nation’s racial reckoning of the past few years has prompted a reevaluation of penal labor as a legacy of slavery, spurring people to question whether incarcerated people should be required to work in 2022. Activists are pressing for an end to work requirements or, if they continue, for higher wages….
In March, Colorado enacted a law that will pay the state minimum wage of $12.56 an hour to inmates who are within a year of their release date and work for private companies through the state-run Take TWO (for Transitional Work Opportunity) program. “This is actually a very conservative approach,” Colorado state Rep. Matt Soper, the Republican sponsor of the bipartisan measure, said in an interview. “We need workers, and they need to gain skills before release.”
To pass the bill, though, Soper first had to explain why paying prisoners the minimum wage was a good idea. “Some victims and victims’ advocacy groups opposed the idea at first, and then they wanted every dollar to come back in restitution,” he said. “But that’s not a good system, because we want [the former offenders] to have savings as seed money to restart their lives. My goal is to disrupt the current model of recidivism.”
But no Colorado inmates are participating right now. Take TWO, which began in 2019 and reportedly had about 100 participants in March, is “on a pause while we review and update logistics and criteria and address some of our immediate staffing shortages,” the Colorado Department of Corrections said in an email.
Prison minimum wage bills are pending in New York and Illinois. Since 2019, bills have failed in Arizona, Maryland, Mississippi, Nevada, Texas and Virginia, according to the ACLU….
Proponents of making prison work more remunerative and meaningful also argue it’s not productive for society to keep incarcerated workers in dead-end jobs that fail to prepare them for employment outside the prison walls or allow them to accumulate some savings for when they are released. Studies show poverty and unemployment lead to recidivism.
Some crime victims groups also support raising prison wages, said Lenore Anderson, founder and president of the Alliance for Safety and Justice, an Oakland, California-based group that works to end mass incarceration, reduce crime and support survivors of violent crime. The public assumes that people hurt by crime and violence would want the worst possible prison experience for those who committed the crimes, Anderson said. “But that’s not what we find. People want them to succeed,” she said. “How do we know after someone has served time they’re prepared for living in society? That’s what rehabilitation, work and education programs do. Wages are part of that. It would be very consistent with smart rehabilitation to align prison wages with wages on the outside.”
The average wage nationwide for incarcerated workers who maintain prison facilities ranges from 13 cents to 52 cents an hour, according to the ACLU and Global Human Rights Clinic. In seven Southern states — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas — almost all work by prisoners goes unpaid. “It’s not hard to imagine that’s a vestige of slavery,” said Jennifer Turner, the ACLU’s principal human rights researcher and primary author of the report, “Captive Labor: Exploitation of Incarcerated Workers.”
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