By Todd Peterson
Give prisoners jobs! Real, honest-to-goodness jobs. Jobs other than the menial tasks we associate with prison life: serving food in the mess hall, doing laundry, scrubbing pigeon waste off the sidewalk. Jobs in career fields that can lead to viable employment after release.
At a time when the economy is in a downturn and many are struggling to make ends meet, concern regarding the employment of prisoners may seem somewhat dubious, if not downright crazy. However, if we are to lower recidivism rates – and truly rehabilitate prisoners – inmate employment is exactly what is needed.
Go sit in the corner and think about what you’ve done. For 208,118  men and women in the United States, as of 2009, the Federal Bureau of Prisons is the adult – albeit more severe – equivalent of this child’s punishment.
Even a short prison sentence offers plenty of time for reflection. Although our past misdeeds should never be fully forgotten, after the first few days or perhaps weeks, of a sentence, even the most recalcitrant prisoner must move on and find a way to “do their time.” This is simply the healthy thing to do.
Moving on doesn’t mean forgetting; simply that it’s nearly impossible – not to mention counterproductive – to do nothing other than lose oneself in thoughts of regret and remorse. This of course begs two questions: “What can and should a prisoner do with the remaining days, months, or years of their sentence?” Regrettably, many answer this question by playing cards, working out, watching TV, and even sleeping. These choices are not necessarily made out of laziness, but rather from a lack of better options. Or a lack of understanding the various types of options currently available to them (e.g. educational programming).
The Federal Bureau of Prisons will help any inmate who does not have a high school diploma or a GED to obtain their GED. In fact, they mandate it. Beyond a GED, however, educational opportunities in prison are limited at best. Unfortunately, only a limited number of inmates are able to participate in these programs, due to small class sizes and a lack of resources. A very few prisons offer accredited college courses; again, participation being limited by available resources rather than lack of prisoner interest. Prisoners commonly exclaim that they would participate in college-level studies if they were offered in an economical format, one which they could afford.
What happens to prisoners who are unable to enroll in educational programs, or who are at a prison that does not offer any? Some are able – through friends or family – to afford college correspondence courses. Others are able to explore their talents through creative outlets such as writing, music, artwork, and crafts. For the majority, though, prison culture offers little or nothing in the way of rehabilitation or the inculcation of positive work or life skills.
The proper running of a prison requires the employment of inmates – to a certain extent. Even though the various departments: mess hall, landscaping, sanitation, education, facilities, recreation, etc., are fully staffed by the prison population, there simply aren’t enough jobs to go around. Also, most prison jobs offer little or nothing in the way of useful job experience, and their compensation is often less than a child’s allowance.
The lowest pay a prisoner receives in the Federal Bureau of Prisons – “maintenance pay” – is $5.25 per month. Not per hour, per month. Better jobs pay $15-$20 per month, and a few pay upwards of $50 or even $100 per month. Such jobs are rare, though. The only ones which pay consistently well are the UNICOR jobs which pay around $100 a month. Though, as I’ll be noting in a moment, they are few and far between.
So what?! Why should prisoners be paid at all? Because it is much less expensive to hire inmates to do these jobs than it would be to hire staff to do them. But they already get free room and board. True, a small room shared by two to four people, or a barracks-style room with ten bunk beds or more, and mess hall food provide the bare necessities. Once a month, an inmate may even obtain a toiletries bag containing two single blade razors, a one-inch toothbrush, one travel size toothpaste tube, one travel size deodorant, one hotel size soap, ten sheets of paper, and five envelopes. Anything else would be a luxury. Do note that shampoo is not included in this list. That too is considered a luxury.
Additional items can be purchased at the commissary – at a 30% markup. The cost of mailing a letter home is currently 46 cents, a price that seems to go up every few months. Phone calls are 23 cents per minute. Inmates cannot challenge their long distance carrier for a better rate. For the poorer inmates, those with no help from home and no premium job, such luxuriesas a proper bar of soap, shampoo, letters home, and a few packages of Ramen Noodle soup are just barely within reach, if not out of it entirely.
Again, why should we care? We should care because such an environment promotes criminal behavior. For prisoners who make only $5.25 per month, and even those with higher pay grades, the only way to improve their situation is with a hustle. A hustle is a non-regulation method of making money. These can include: selling items (art, crafts, canteen items); doing work for another inmate (cleaning, ironing, haircuts) or even less savory pursuits that don’t bear mentioning.
All hustles are, of course, against prison policy. While the purpose of this article is neither to advocate nor condone hustling, a certain irony needs to be addressed: prison life is set up in such a way – whether by design or not – as to recreate the negative circumstances under which prisoners previously participated in detrimental behavior. Prison life – in effect – perpetuates criminal thinking and behavior.
Whether or not one believes that money should be spent to educate and employ inmates, it should be readily obvious that a rehabilitated prisoner is preferable to one who is not rehabilitated. The Bureau of Prisons, however, focuses on the punitive, rather than the rehabilitative aspect of prison.
Imagine if every drug and alcohol treatment facility in the United States functioned using the Bureau of Prison’s model: every patient would be given a prescribed amount of time to consider their past actions, during which they would be expected to amend their behavior. This would be done on their own – with little or no counseling available – in an environment similar to the one from which they came. Facilities and twelve step programs would be filled only with addicts. No recovering addicts. No sponsors. Time spent in rehab would be expected – in and of itself – to be a suitable deterrent against relapse. The success rate of such a program would be abysmally low.
The prison system and society as a whole have become so obsessed with the punishment of criminals that they have lost sight of the positive benefit prison can provide: the opportunity to help a flawed human being to overcome their flaws; to help them come out of the system a better person than when they went in. Certainly, there are those who lack either the will or desire to change. Such people should and will continue to suffer the consequences of their actions. But what about those who are truly contrite? Those who have “learned their lesson?” How do we reinforce the positive lessons of prison time rather than perpetuating negative behavior?
Jobs. What better way is there to learn valuable life skills than through experiencing the responsibilities and rewards of employment?
The security measures that would be necessary in order to employ a significant number of prisoners in the free world workforce would be impractical, if not impossible. Fortunately, there is already a model for the employment of prisoners: Federal Prison Industries (UNICOR).
UNICOR facilities provide various products and services, ranging from printed materials to army T-shirts to furniture. There is even a UNICOR call center. Unfortunately, UNICOR has a limited scope: it is not available in every federal prison, and it only employs a small percentage of federal prisoners nationwide. Also, some UNICOR facilities teach less valuable skills than others (one facility does nothing more than sort clothes hangers). Even so, UNICOR is one example of how prisoners can be effectively employed.
Why would anyone advocate employing prisoners when there aren’t enough jobs available for those who want them in the free world? Take a look at the label on your clothing, your electronics, anything that is manufactured. How many of these products are “Made in the USA?” Not all that many, I would imagine. These are jobs that are already being outsourced that do not even pay the equivalent of minimum wage. Would it be more beneficial to our country to employ prisoners and teach them job skills, or to send our money to companies overseas?
When a prisoner becomes educated – whether through academic or vocational classes or on the job training – their ability to function as a productive member of society increases. Employment is the number one factor for determining an ex-offender’s likelihood of re-offending. We can teach inmates the valuable skills they require in order to be successful, while providing a competitive alternative to overseas outsourcing.
Give prisoners jobs: it may sound a little crazy at first, but the more you think about it, the more it makes sense.
1-United States Dept. of Justice, “Prisoners in 2009.” Washington: BJS, 2010. Print.