Tuesday Talk*: The Wages of Sin

It may be Wednesday, but that doesn’t mean we can’t pretend otherwise, which has become something of a national pastime. As noted previously, there is a national prison strike happening, although no one who doesn’t focus on criminal law or prisoners’ rights would be aware of it. That’s unfortunate, as the striking prisoners have real issues and are taking significant risks with their welfare to do something about it.

One of the primary issues at stake is prison “slavery,” that prisoners are forced to work without wages, or for inadequate wages. The Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery in general, carved out an exception for people convicted of crimes. While slavery remains constitutionally permissible in prison, that doesn’t mean it’s either right or should be exploited. We don’t have to make prisoners slaves. Should we?

At the Washington Post, David Fathi of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, argues for why prisoners should be paid a reasonable wage for their work.

So is it okay to require prisoners to work for no pay, as Texas does? Or to pay prisoners 15 cents an hour (Arizona), or 19 cents an hour (Pennsylvania)? The prisoners fighting California’s wildfires — extraordinarily dangerous work that has killed at least six firefighters so far this year — receive a princely $1.45 a day.

As he notes, most prisoners prefer to work, not because it’s an enjoyable thing to do but to relieve the monotony. A decade doing nothing isn’t nearly as much fun as people think. They don’t have to be paid at all, even if some are paid nominal wages. But is this a good thing?

Many prison jobs are eagerly sought after, even at these meager wages. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t rethink the way we treat prisoner workers. One of the most important guiding principles in modern corrections is “normalization” — the idea that the prison environment should, insofar as possible, resemble the community to which most prisoners will eventually return. In the outside world, people are paid for their work and are rewarded for good job performance. There’s no reason prison jobs shouldn’t operate in the same way.

To blithely say “there’s no reason” isn’t helpful. There are plenty of reasons, the most obvious of which is that it would cost an enormous amount of money. While “normalization” is one of many concepts that prison reformers are aiming for, with good reason, it’s hardly a “guiding principle.” It’s aspirational, at best. At the same time, if we’re going to talk about normal and prisons in the same breath, are we going to make prisoner’s pay rent, pay for food, pay for entertainment? Of course not, because there’s nothing “normal” about being caged.

Support for raising prisoners’ wages has come from an unexpected source: prison administrators themselves. In 2016, the American Correctional Association — the voice of the U.S. corrections profession since 1870 — passed a resolution calling for repeal of the 13th Amendment’s exclusion clause. The association decried “the historical applicability of slavery and involuntary servitude as acceptable punishment for those convicted of crimes.” If the people who run our prisons think it’s time to give prisoners a raise, perhaps it’s an idea whose time has come.

And, indeed, they have called for the repeal of Section 1 of the Thirteenth Amendment, the “exclusion clause.” There is nothing, however, addressing prisoners’ wages, and there is some curious performative assertions about prisons as well.

WHEREAS, the “Declaration of Principles” of the American Correctional Association stipulates
that we have “a special responsibility to protect from harm those who are involuntarily under
our care and control” and that “contemporary standards for health care, offender classification, due process, fire and building safety, nutrition, personal well-being and clothing and shelter must be observed;”

There’s no need for a repeal of a constitutional amendment to start their members fulfilling any of these important goals, and still dead bodies are found in cells. Saying nice things isn’t the same as doing nice things, a detail people often miss.

Should prisoners be paid? Should they be paid a “decent” wage (with “decent” in scare quotes, as who knows what that means), a prevailing wage, minimum wage? There is little question that turning people out of prison with job skills, assuming anyone will hire an ex-con or they will be allowed to do the job, is one aspect of ending recidivism and making the experience of incarceration minimally purposeful. And there is similarly little question that people coming out of prison need to be able to rent an apartment, buy food and clothing, survive, if they’re not going to immediately return to crime. Even ex-cons have to eat.

Is paying a “decent” wage the solution? Discuss.

*Tuesday Talk rules apply.

47 thoughts on “Tuesday Talk*: The Wages of Sin

  1. Patrick Maupin

    Go ahead and pay ’em good money. It’s not like they’ll get to keep it or anything, anyway.

    If the purpose of increased wages is really to help the prisoners, rather than the politicians’ and wardens’ favorite companies, then there will need to be some analogue of a 401K plan — money that the system cannot steal, and that even the prisoner cannot access until he “retires” from jail out into the real world.

    1. PseudonymousKid

      You’re onto something. Introduce banks to prisons next. Sub prime loans have already done so much good for poor communities. Nothing at all could go wrong there, just a good honest buck being made through the glories of finance. Why should prisoners go without this important service? You’re so right. Pay them a decent wage and fuck them over just like the “real” world would.

    2. Fubar

      Two perspectives.

      To discourage a lifetime of knavery,
      By convicts whose acts were unsavory,
      We still have the means:
      Install rowing machines,
      And re-institute galley slavery!

      Rehabilitate, teach them life skills
      To avoid the temptations and thrills
      Of a lifetime of crime
      (at least most of the time).
      Then, like us, they can work and pay bills!

  2. AX

    Developmental psychologist, Robert Kegan, describes a prison milieu therapy based on behavioral principles (e.g., a token economy in which privileges are earned for good behavior) and rejects this as anything other than a scheme for helping to promote order within the prison institution. While prisoners will generally behave in exchange for privileges, the dysfunctional and selfish way they think is not being transformed in any way.

    The latter being critical to any meaningful rehabilitation. Instead I believe he recommends projects that require prisoners to cooperate to increasing levels of complexity. The projects have to be enticing (appeal to the selfishness in the right way) but also require cooperation. This pitting selfishness against non-selfishness (cooperation). This is supposed to move the needle developmentally.

    Wages or no wages we should figure out what really helps prisoners develop.

  3. PseudonymousKid

    Like most solutions, paying prisoners a decent wage for the menial work they do isn’t one. It isn’t slavery to compel the prisoners to clean up after themselves. I know I hysterically shouted that you were a slave driver growing up, Pa, but that was just teenage hormones and angst, I think. You were instilling important lessons of self-sufficiency and pride and community. At least you tried to.

    You’re only examining a sliver of the pie here anyway, as the large expansion in prison labor more recently has been in so-called “industry jobs” for private companies for which the inmates do get paid at least minimum wage even in Texas. Of course those wages are subject to deduction to defray the costs of housing the prisoner-laborers. Prisoners are apparently making all sorts of things for the private sector again which makes some sense given the explosion in raw numbers of prisoners available for such work. So apparently there’s no debate here that prisoners should be treated like private sector laborers as far as wages go when they do work in the private sector. They are already.

    So no one is being forced to work. Demand for even the menial jobs is high enough to fill all the necessary positions to maintain the prison day-to-day. And the people who do work in the private sector get paid like they are in the private sector. There’s nothing to see here, which surprises me.

      1. PseudonymousKid

        No one is being forced to produce widgets for Wal-Mart unless I’m completely off. Rather, they are primarily being forced to maintain the prisons they live in, and punished if they don’t cooperate. If prisoners don’t like that, they can organize like they are doing. I wish them the best of luck. Maybe they will all get to make widgets and earn minimum wage minus expenses someday. That’s about all the hope I could muster.

        1. SHG Post author

          Not sure that’s true, or at least was true. Texas used to rent out its inmates to pick cotton, and they had no choice. I don’t know whether that’s still happening. But inside work is still forced.

  4. Jake

    Respectfully, I think you’re asking the wrong question. The problem, as I see it, is not what they are paid, but what they are doing. Education has a value but if a prison is leveraging cheap labor to help commercial organizations cut costs, the goal is no longer to teach the prison population marketable skills.

    1. SHG Post author

      Here’s where you betray yourself unnecessarily: there are different questions. The one not in Jake’s head isn’t the wrong one, just a different one. Subcontracted/outside prison labor is a different issue than internal prison work.

      1. Jake

        Regarding outside vs. inside labor, I hadn’t noticed a distinction in item #2 of the prisoners list of demands. You certainly don’t mention one in today’s post on the topic. Not to worry, I was not under the illusion you would break with tradition and respond to the substance of my contribution to the discussion!

        1. SHG Post author

          This was your opportunity to actually say something illuminating. I’m sorry if you live for my response. Be a big boy. Speak your mind, Jake. Stop looking to me to validate your existence.

          1. Billy Bob

            Why be hard on Jake? You got the post-Labor Day blues? Or are you simpley depressed! Come on now, get with the pogrom.

  5. Gregory Smith

    I support all of the objectives specified by the organisers of the prison strike, but I think one important demand is missing — decent food. The food American prisoners eat is awful — unhealthy, unbalanced, heavy on starches and carbs, and lacking in fresh, healthy foods. If you took an ordinary citizen and force fed them the junk that prisons do for 10 years, you’d turn many of them into criminals. It’s a truism that “you are what you eat,” so it’s ignorant and unrealistic to force people to eat junk while they are incarcerated and expect them to emerge as better people. I believe that restrictions on books and magazines were on the striker’s agenda — same concept — if your intent is correct antisocial behaviour, then healthy food, exercise and learning shouldn’t be secondary or lacking — they should be the central elements of any correctional programme. Feeding prisoners unhealthy food is morally no different than poisoning them with heavy metals just because you can.

    1. SHG Post author

      Everyone who wondered what you support, GS, can now sleep at night, and wishes you best of luck on your focus problems.

      1. Charles

        Don’t forget that it’s Tueswednesday, that one day when we can lose focus and you won’t….hey look! Squirrel!

      1. Jake

        This response would have immediately illuminated the ignorance of my original comment without making it personal.

  6. MonitorsMost

    Not really sure the 13th Amendment comes into play here. Sure, involuntary servitude is permissible in the context, but it’s unclear that is happening when prison jobs are sought after to avoid the monotony. And if there is no involuntary servitude, it’s really just and employer/employee dispute. Strikes and unionization seem to be the way to handle it.

    1. SHG Post author

      This is kinda surprising. So maybe the prisoners feel like cooking meals, or maybe not and the prisoners don’t eat? Or maybe they strike for $50 an hour or everyone dies of hunger and lives in a toilet? Or you don’t really care and this is just a throw away comment that makes no sense whatsoever?

      1. MonitorsMost

        It’s pretty clear under 8th Amendment jurisprudence that the State is required to care for welfare of the incarcerated. Including feeding, medical care and theoretically basic hygiene. That duty exists irrespective of whether the inmates are the ones performing these tasks. Since letting the prisoners starve because they are striking is not an option, i would think a strike is a pretty good source of leverage.

        That said, I concede that my initial take was far too normative and not grounded in the likely result, especially in the short-term.

        1. SHG Post author

          Play it out. You’re right that they owe inmates a duty of care, and they must feed them, etc. So, if they can’t rely on inmates doing the work if they should decide to strike, or they just feel like working that day, they need to have staff (inside or out) to perform the function. Then, inmates’ services will no longer be needed. Either they can be relied upon to perform the function or someone else will have to perform the function.

          Assuming they can force inmates to do it (because the 13th Amendment, even though you fail to see the connection), do they pay them out of the kindness of their heart? How much? Or do we repeal the Exclusion Clause and punt? What happens then?

  7. Miles

    Interesting that no one has even tried to address the issue of whether prisoners should be paid some version of a “decent” wage. As discussions go, the comment here are totally worthless.

      1. Miles

        Having contributed nothing in my first comment, the least I can do is address the issues you raised. I think work is part of the punishment of incarceration, apart from rehabilitation. It’s not a jobs program where they should earn a minimum (or negotiated union, WTF?) wage. A token wage for commissary as motivation is fine, though not mandatory.

        Going to prison isn’t intended as a way of earning a living, but serves the 5 purposes of incarceration. Earning money is not part of the deal, but doing work and taking responsibility for your life, existence and surroundings is.

      2. Patrick Maupin

        I considered writing that “fair” is a difficult concept in this context; for example, a “fair” wage would, of necessity, take into account the cost of security concerns that weren’t relevant in the real world.

        But then I remembered that the real world changed a few years ago.

    1. Richard

      And do you count non-money benefits? In California the inmate firefighters mostly live in separate fire camps which are smaller, far more pleasant and with much better food. They also earn twice the good conduct credit (2 days for every day served rather than 1). (The pay rate is pennies, but a little higher than referenced in the post– 2$ per day, plus 1$ per hour when on the fire line)

  8. B. McLeod

    They had some real issues, it is true, but doomed this effort to a failure by their asinine list of demands. Given that this basically determined the ending, I stopped watching.

    1. SHG Post author

      And outside of a small group of people, mostly CDLs, advocates and families, no one even knows, no less cares, this prison strike is happening.

  9. Billy Bob

    What everybody is forgetting is that prisoners have no rights, no rights that are enforceable by any agency or any court. They’re in prison for godsake!

    Any rights that might be granted, inter alia, non sequitur, come too late in the game. Life has passed you by, so to speak. You lost your job, your house or apartment, your family and friends(?), etc. Your car or pickup truck. Your dog!

    Decent wage, prevailing wage, honest wage, living wage, …are you kidding me? I’m a free man and cannot get any of the aforementioned wages. How do you like them apples?

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