Inmate labor: practical solution for budgetary burdens and inmate idleness or the modern incarnation of the despicable tradition of American slavery?
Ralph Waldo Emerson, writing from the midst of the Civil War in the April 1862 edition of The Atlantic, praised the “self-sufficient” prison, “the very prison compelled to maintain itself and yield a revenue,” as an example of a progressive civilization - even as he advocated for the abolishment of slavery. Even as recently as the 1990s, the use of the incarcerated to create goods - license plates, army gear, and more - and perform services inside and outside, conspicuous in their orange jumpsuits, seemed a standard not quite worthy of mainstream moral discomfort.
But the most recent election cycle helped to re-calibrate the conversation, and this week, the Twitterverse dragged up for public shaming an excerpt from Hillary Clinton’s 1996 book “It Takes a Village,” in which the former first lady of Arkansas wrote that, during her time at the Capitol in Little Rock, she “agreed to abide by tradition.” That tradition was of prisoners working as maintenance and support staff in government buildings for the meager compensation offered through inmate wages, a scene that looks for many like some poorly-applied lipstick on a particularly mean and dirty pig.
The use of prisoners for labor pervades the criminal justice system. And, as has long been known, their employment isn’t limited to maintaining their own environments or streets and public buildings - private companies frequently take advantage of the captive workforce.
Last year, the Louisiana Department of Corrections provided MuckRock with materials that begin to offer a sense of the composition of inmate labor within the state prison system.
The initial request asked for all associated contracts and invoices related to inmate labor in the Louisiana state prison system. The initial estimate for those records was set at over $10,000.
Then the DOC provided free of charge lists it had released to the Southern Poverty Law Center, detailing associated employers for many, but not all, of their facilities. Absent from the collection are materials related to Dixon Correctional Institute, the prison that would provide workers to the state Capitol in Louisiana. It does, however, offer a view of the occupations available in the area.
In the northeastern corner of the state, for example, the primary relationship for Morehouse Parish Detention is with DG Foods, LLC, a food processing plant that employed over a hundred inmates.
The materials also included a list of businesses associated with the Transitional Work Program, which includes over 5,000 Louisiana locations.
In all instances, inmates take home far less than the average worker - and even if someone is being paid something akin to minimum wage for their work, that amount can face a slew of deductions that get garnished. As difficult as it can be to collect savings as a minimum wage worker, that ability is challenged while incarcerated, too. For the companies and governments that need cheap labor fast, of course, inmates are ideal - after major weather, like blizzards in Boston and flooding in Louisiana, inmates can be mobilized more easily than other workforces. The economics that come with a captive workforce that needn’t receive the typical benefits of insurance and unemployment work well for private companies, but some would argue it also interferes the order of the labor market.
Follow up requests are being sent to Louisiana and states across the country to learn more about their inmate work programs.