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Considering the Limits of Prison Labor

Mohamed Huque, author of “Made In Prison: The Rise of America’s New Labour Class,” has given an interview in which he discusses the use of a federal prisoner workforce:


Let’s start at the beginning, Mohamed. Why is prison labor a bad thing? Shouldn’t the prisoners be doing something constructive with their time? What constitutes exploitation and how do we draw the line?
I don’t believe prison labour is inherently a bad thing. Those serving time behind bars should be given an opportunity to learn valuable skills, gain work experience, meet financial obligations, and potentially leave prison with a small amount saved to restart their lives. This was the intended purpose behind prison work programs and I can fully support that. However, it becomes problematic when inmates are subjected to abusive and unsafe work conditions, when inmates are hired to replace union and public sector workers, and most importantly when they are not given fair wages equivalent to non-inmates in the same locality. This is when it becomes exploitative.
It is interesting to note that although prison labour is widely used in America, federal law prohibits the importation of products made in a similar way from any other country, notably China. And while the penal systems in the two countries are vastly different, on this particular issue, China’s “reform through labour” camps are not so dissimilar to the mandate of UNICOR. Both consider the work to be linked to lower recidivism; in China’s case it provides a future deterrent, in America’s case it provides future employability. In reality however, both countries benefit from a captive labour force, earning profits not equally shared by its prisoners.
Any discussion around prison labour will inevitably lead to differing notions of justice. For some, a criminal offender has forfeited their right to equal treatment because prison is meant to be punitive. Enduring hard work while receiving sub-standard wages is an accepted condition of life behind bars. I don’t believe in this. Prison labour must be treated in similar fashion to labour elsewhere, otherwise it is tantamount to modern day slavery.