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.