Prison labor is often thought of as virtually synonymous with slave labor. In the past, it typically meant no wages, or very low ones, and terrible working conditions. But prison labor is getting a fresh look in the United States, and for some good reasons.
First, a booming economy in most parts of the country has resulted in labor markets so tight that all available manpower is valued. And the nation's prisons have an abundance of idle manpower. Efforts to give inmates jobs are spreading. Often, the work is for government, but increasingly private-sector jobs are available inside prison walls as well. Wages range from a few cents an hour to the minimum wage or better.
More than 80,000 inmates are working regularly, and 36 states have at least some prisoners in the employ of private industry. The latter programs employ only about 3,600 inmates, but that's twice the number of five years ago. These figures shrink beside the 2 million people incarcerated in the US. But the trend is discernable, and important.
Aside from the economic rationale for making use of prisoners' ability to work, the social payoff is significant. The inmate given some meaningful work experience has a better prospect of not becoming a repeat offender. He (or she) has marketable skills and the possibility of heading into the job market on the outside with a recommendation and a positive work record.
In many cases, however, work opportunities in prison have to be teamed with remedial education and drug and alcohol rehabilitation. That only makes sense. Most people behind bars today are there at least partly because of these problems - problems that undermine their employability.
Some may argue prisons should be for punishment, not job training. That's short-sighted. Job opportunities are going primarily to those whose crimes were not violent. About two-thirds of all inmates fit in that category.
What about low-paid prisoners competing with other American workers? More likely they're competing with even lower-paid foreign labor. In any case, there's plenty of work to go around.
The move toward expanded work options for inmates should be encouraged. It's a needed counter-current to the "lock 'em up and throw away the key" attitude.
In most cases, these are redeemable human beings, with the potential to make a positive contribution to society.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society