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Prisons: Problems and Prospects - The Availability Of Employment In The Prison

labor prisoners idleness competition

The most persistent management problem for prisons has been to find work for prisoners to do to occupy their time and prepare for release. A historical essay published in 1910 complained about outside opposition to prisoner industry and employment. The author Frederick Wines wrote:

The reasons assigned in support of the contention that an end should be put to the competition of convict labor with "free labor outside" are more specious than convincing. Prisoners cannot be allowed to rot in idleness. Apart from the demoralizing influence of idleness, its tendency is to mental deterioration, insanity and death. No form of labor can be devised, other than trade education, which does not result in competition. . . . Besides, the unconvicted man has a right, and it is his duty, to support himself; how does this change of status relieve him of that duty or deprive him of that right? (pp. 22–23)

Wines, a prominent turn-of-the-century prison reformer, asserts that "the opposition to constructive labor in prisons is irrational, cruel and wicked" (p. 22). He declared himself unsympathetic to the argument that cheap prison labor could cut into business and profits. "Even if it were proved," he writes, "that the supplies from prison labor tend to lower prices, that can hardly be deemed a calamity" (p. 23). His concerns, however, proved to be a minority view. As early as 1866, a bill was introduced in New York restricting prisoner competition with free-world manufacture. The following year, a declaration was promulgated that "no trades must be taught to convicts in prison."

The controversy has continued unabated to the present, with correctional officials chafing under restrictions that confine prison products to "state use" commodities, such as license plates, office furnishings, and clothing for in-house prison consumption. A perennial complaint of prison managers has been that there are not enough jobs for prisoners, and that an indecently high proportion of prison populations live in enforced idleness or are underemployed. Idleness creates disciplinary problems, and riots are said to have been instigated by a lack of jobs for prisoners who want to work.

Vocational training in prison has been similarly limited, and offenders who leave prison are said to be unemployable because they lack requisite skills, work habits, and motivation to work. Enforced leisure is also said to contribute to a propensity for crime, leaving time for offenders to compare notes about their offending attainments and the technology and available opportunities for committing antisocial activities. Moreover, the public is affronted by the notion of inmates spending their time playing checkers or watching television while law-abiding citizens engage in back-breaking disciplined labor.

Much ingenuity has been exercised by prison staff over the years to find productive work for prisoners that does not compete with work in the free world. The options, however, are limited, and the number of inmates who can be deployed in off-beat activities such as taming mustangs, manning switchboards, or caring for retired horses is infinitesimally small.

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