When a prison inmate prays for release from her cell, prison industries can be her first salvation. I couldn't wait to head to work in the kitchen of the maximum-security women's prison in Connecticut where I did six years for identity theft and related crimes. I was paid 75 cents to $1.75 a day to make and serve a lot of casserole. Yet I consider most of the criticism lobbed at prison labor — that it's a form of slavery, a capitalist horror show — unfair, and even counterproductive in the effort to reform the justice system.
Among the firefighters on California's fire lines this fall, 30% to 40% are inmates, paid $1 an hour to work side by side with crews making a lot more money. Some inmate firefighters have gone on the record saying they feel the same way I do about prison jobs. It's people on the outside who rail against prison work assignments, particularly hiring prisoners to fight fires.
"We don't want prison policy driven by a desire for cheap labor," says David Fathi, director of the ACLU's National Prison Project. He worries that a captive labor force incentivizes mass incarceration. Fathi can point to some unfortunate remarks made by prison administrators. Last month, the sheriff of Caddo Parish, La., lamented the loss of the "good" prisoners who washed prison cars. In 2014, the office of the attorney general of California balked at reducing prison overcrowding because it would deplete the prison workforce.
Still, less than half of America's prison population works. The most recent available Bureau of Justice statistics come from 2005, when 800,000 to 900,000 inmates, out of a population of about 2.3 million, had jobs within their facilities. That left at least 1.3 million prisoners for the government to house, clothe and feed without getting anything in return. It doesn't seem likely that captive labor is the reason our prisons are overcrowded.
Most labor in prison is menial work for the state. Inmates sew hems on jackets for municipal employees; they do laundry duty or janitorial work. These are also normal, outside-world activities and jobs. When a prisoner is cooking, mopping floors or folding clothes, she knows somewhere, an unincarcerated person is doing the same thing. When a prisoner is working, she is the closest to free she can be, until she gets out.
My prison job made me feel like I was fulfilling my existential duty to society: I was contributing. It doesn't surprise me that prison work assignments are credited with reducing recidivism. Any change for good that happened within me while I was incarcerated grew out of my job. If I feel that way about my time making chicken a la king, an inmate who's saving lives fighting fires must feel it 10 times over.
Some call prison labor the new Jim Crow because of the outsized number of black and brown inmates in U.S. prisons. It's a facile charge, and worse, it may be keeping progressive companies away from prison projects. Socially conscious businesses and agencies are likely to pay inmates higher wages, train them for better jobs and do more to prepare them for life after prison — if those companies aren't scared away by vociferous critics of prison labor.
Whole Foods used to sell goat cheese made from milk produced on a prison farm in Colorado. "We felt supporting suppliers who found a way to be part of paid, rehabilitative work being done by inmates would help people get back on their feet and eventually become contributing members of society," a company spokesman said. Whole Foods ended the program in 2015, after consumer protests I can only assume came from people who've never been incarcerated. Anyone who's done time wouldn't deny a fellow prisoner that kind of lifeline.
When private companies contract with prisons, the labor isn't cheap. Federal law requires contractors to pay minimum wage for inmate work. The state may garnish those wages to cover the costs of incarceration. If inmates working for private contractors are cheated of a fair wage, the fault lies not with the business that hires prisoners but the system that confines them.
Don't get me wrong, prison labor is by no means problem-free. Two inmate firefighters died in work-related accidents in California this year. It's unclear whether a lack of training or the inherent danger of firefighting contributed to those deaths. We may never know because there is too little investigation of worker safety in all prisoner occupations. If safety and worker empowerment were the focus of prison labor reform, rather than dismantling the system, the movement would get my support.
The way to protect workers is the same inside and outside: unionization. It's a misconception that inmate unions are against the law. The Supreme Court held 40 years ago that wardens don't violate prisoners' 1st Amendment rights when they bust inmate unions, but at the same time, nothing prohibits prison administrators from allowing unions to form. That's where the pushback against prison labor should be aimed, toward persuading wardens to allow physical and organizational safeguards for inmate workers, protections they can negotiate for themselves.
Prison work isn't just another battlefield in the fight between labor and capital, however justified that fight may be. Work is more than a wage, it's an expression of humanity, and that is especially true in prison. To even consider ridding our prisons of inmate work assignments is dehumanizing to the thousands of firefighters who are risking their lives in California. Keeping them on the fire line is one of the best things the state can do for its citizens, incarcerated or not.
Chandra Bozelko's essays have appeared in the Guardian and the Washington Post. She writes the award-winning blog "Prison Diaries."