Punitive work has ancient origins, in both America and Europe, it was first instituted as a form of corporal punishment. And although the 13th amendment of the U.S. Constitution explicitly forbids slavery and any kind of involuntary servitude, an exception was specially made for criminals. This has allowed private institutions to profit from the punishment of others, a circumstance that can easily be described as a moral hazard.
The problem with prison labor is that it takes advantage of the vulnerability of inmates. In the United States, Prison labor is legally required, and workers can earn as little as $0.12 per hour of labor if they work for a government-run prison industry, or around $6 if they work for a private organization instead, and although the second option is far better than the first one, both are still lower than the federal minimum wage of $7.25. Thus, allowing some of the biggest private companies in the country such as Starbucks, Victoria Secret and Microsoft to enjoy an extremely cheap workforce.
Besides being unfairly rewarded for their jobs, prisoners also have no bargaining power, which means that they can be easily exploited. In fact, there are cases where prisoners have filed lawsuits against their employers because allegedly they were sent to solitary confinement after they complained about their working conditions. In addition, inmates are also very dependent on their contractors, as Pierre Sleiman, the owner of a T-shirt company currently employing prison workers, puts it: “If I lay them off for a week, I don’t have to worry about someone else coming and saying, ‘come work for me’”.
This issue does not end there; manufacturers are not the only ones taking advantage of this situation, private prisons also profit from the work of their inmates by keeping a part of their salaries. They even advertise themselves and their inmates as the perfect source for a readily available and reliable workforce given that their workers “won’t have any issue commuting to work or waiting for the nanny to arrive in the morning”. This has allowed them to become a billion-dollar industry, which is now spending a great amount of their profits lobbying in favor of measures such as mandatory minimum sentences and immigrant detection. These measures not only make sure that they keep their cells remain filled up, but also, contributes to the growth of America’s gigantic prison population which currently constitutes for about a quarter of all the prisoners in the world.
Ideally, prisons should provide inmates the possibility to occupy their time in a meaningful way. This is a very important aspect of the social function that prisons are meant to fulfill, given that the ability to acquire a skill during this time could lead to an effective resocialization of the individual after its release. After all, it is true that inmates who work are less likely to go back to prison after their release. However, the range of jobs being offered is currently driven by a desire for cheap labor, which means that it mainly offers participants unskilled tasks that do little to prepare them for their professional future and are unlikely to improve their job prospects. It is in the best interest of society to have prisons that actually offer inmate rehabilitation programs that improve the prospects of the convict, instead of taking advantage of their situation. As said by supreme court justice Thurgood Marshall “When prison gates slam behind an inmate, he does not lose his human quality… his yearning for self-respect does not end, nor his quest for self-realization concluded. If anything, the need for identity and self-respect are more compelling in the dehumanizing prison environment.”