One of the common themes among prison officials who justify the use of prison slave labor is that prison labor give inmates job skills that they can then use when they reenter society. The quote in the title came from Cara Savelli, spokesperson for the Massachusetts Department of Corrections. This is nonsense.
Prison slave labor makes the cost of doing government and private business cheaper — period. That is their primary goal. Training prisoners is secondary, and that’s if they get any training at all. A quote from Linda Evans and Eve Goldberg’s 1997 pamphlet “The Prison Industrial Complex and the Global Economy” outlines this: “For private business prison labor is like a pot of gold. No strikes. No union organizing. No health benefits, unemployment insurance, or workers’ compensation pay. No language barriers, as in foreign countries. New leviathan prisons are being built on thousands of eerie acres of factories inside the walls. Prisoners do data entry for Chevron, make telephone reservations for TWA, raise hogs, shovel manure, and make circuit boards, limosines, waterbeds, and lingerie for Victoria’s Secret, all at a fraction of the cost of ‘free labor.'”
The truth is, working for a company as a prisoner often gives you limited skills that are only useful to the company that hires you out. It doesn’t give you the skill portability of say a college degree or a license in a skilled trade. In fact, many of the inmates who worked for a particular company can’t even get a job from that same company when they are released. And what is worse is when they don’t give you any training at all.
Take egg producer Hickman’s Family Farms in Arizona, where hundreds of Arizona prisoners are employed. Many prisoners have been injured because they were not properly trained on the equipment they were using. Inmate Mary Stinson lost part of her finger while operating machinery at one of their farms, and prisoner Michael Gerhart lost the use of his left hand after it was trapped in a machine while working at Hickman’s. Both have claimed they received no training from Hickman’s about the safe use of the equipment they were tasked with using and have filed suit against both Hickman’s and the Arizona DOC.
But what about the states’ prison industries? Do they provide you with “valuable, marketable experience?” Nope.
Wanda Bertram of the Prison Policy Initiative disputes this argument. “Too often, corrections industries are portrayed as incredible job training programs that also somehow make money for the state,” she said. “But that’s not how training people works. Real training takes money.”
If prison officials were really concerned about giving prisoners valuable job skills and lowering recidivism, then an education will go much further than having them slave for the state. In fact, a 2013 Rand Corp. study found that prisoners who participated in educational programming were 43 percent less likely to reoffend.
But why do politicians prefer to promote prison industry, while often denigrating things like restoring Pell Grants? Because it combines two of the their favorite things: saving the state money and making businesses lots of money.
States purchase their goods from their prison industries at reduced cost, while private businesses get cheap labor. It is a perverse incentive that keeps the government from seriously trying to change what they are doing.
So how do we give prisoners real valuable, marketable skills? Here’s what I propose: First, shut down government-run prison industries. Second, end all prison contracts with private companies for the use of prison slave labor. And, finally, invest in prisoner education. Do that and we will go a long way in giving prisoners the skills they really need to be successful on the outside.
But until then, enjoy your eggs.