Prisoners Fight Fires: Is This the New Slave Labor?

The Star Tribune had a very positive article in the paper:

“More than 3,000 trained prisoners are earning $1 an hour, and time shaved off their sentences, for helping fight California’s wildfires.”

The article was extremely positive, interviewing an inmate and how he’s benefited from the experience, as well as well as the department of corrections who point out that it’s “saving state taxpayers an estimated $80 million per year.”
What’s not discussed or addressed, is whether or not the very act of prison labor is ethical. I don’t know if I’ve written about this before, but John Perkins mentioned it a few times at CCDA and it renewed my passion to talk about it.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the entire world with 1.6 million of our citizen’s in prison. It also so happens a disproportionate amount of those prisoners are minorities, you need only look at those exonerated to realize that prejudice and injustices in the system has placed many innocent people in prison as well.

Prison’s are becoming privatized and prisoners are being used to provide sweatshop labor to produce millions of dollars worth of goods for little to no benefit of their own. There is something wrong with that.
We’ve traded a system of blatant slavery for one that fits into our parameters of ‘justice’ and appears on the forefront as appropriate. It is not.


5 thoughts on “Prisoners Fight Fires: Is This the New Slave Labor?”

  1. You may want to differentiate two different kinds of prison labor. There is the one kind where they just use people for manual labor, but there is also a second kind where they work with the people to get certified for different jobs in the hope that when they get out of prison they will have a record of work and a set of skills that they can employ. It seems like this is helpful to lead people to getting good jobs while the other one is just manual labor.

  2. Excellent point. At the same time, I think in both regards, there is something wrong when ‘private’ industry is running prisons and making a profit at the expense of the prisoners. The article mentioned the money ‘saved’ by taxpayers, but didn’t mention the large profit the prison industry makes from this kind of labor.

    If there is profit made I think it should go to something that benefits the prisoners, maybe a scholarship fund for the prisoner once they get out.

  3. It costs a lot of money to house a prisoner. They should have to work to cover the costs. I’m not for outside groups making money off of it, but its not appropriate for prisoners to sit around wasting the taxpayers’ dollars either.

    As for injustices of who is imprisoned and who isn’t, this should be looked into. It doesn’t mean that prisoners shouldn’t work. I’m fine with them getting some personal spending money for their work, but most of it should go to the costs of feeding and housing them.

  4. I don’t see anything intrinsically wrong with prison labor, even if its at a rate lower than the minimum wage. First, if prison labor is rehabilitative (even outside the context of job training programs) doing something productive can be helpful for self-esteem and avoiding depression. Second, the price of housing criminals is something like 30k a year, so prison labor effectively seems to be a means to pay back the public.

    However, Ariah, I think you’re absolutely right that privitized prisons doing the same thing is certainly somewhere between suspect to reprehensible. Especially if they get to extract the labor of the prisoners for extra-profit.

    I think the question of if the working conditions and hours are humane or not is certainly an important question as well.

  5. Indie: Thanks for mentioning that. I understand your feeling that even a prisoner, or especially a prisoner, should ‘earn their keep.’ I don’t have a problem with that, I do however have a problem with the privatized prison industry. I found a great quote that I think expresses it well:

    “(There is a) basic philosophical problem when you begin turning over administration of prisons to people who have an interest in keeping people locked up” notes Jenni Gainsborough of the ACLU’s National Prison Project.

    Nathan: Thanks for your thoughts too. I think it says a great deal about your society, how you treat your prisoners.

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