Putting America Back to Work, One Prisoner at a Time

by Shawanda Greene

Port Blair Jail SectionRecently, I watched a documentary on the privatization of prisons in America. Although some of those featured in the film presented strong arguments for how taxpayers benefit from private prisons, I’m disturbed by their existence.

Countless brave Americans paid for the precious gift of freedom with their lives. So, it feels wrong that a company could use people who’ve lost their freedom as profit generators.

However, I’m struggling with a contradictory emotion.

When I learned a Colorado Springs Whole Foods sells $10 per pound tilapia farmed in a nearby penitentiary, I was outraged. Not because the prisoners who work in the tilapia farm are paid about $40 a month OR because Whole Foods obviously doesn’t pass on the cost savings to its customers.

I’m pissed I can’t get in on that sweet, cheap prison labor action.

Is that wrong?


But what if small business owners, entrepreneurs, and freelancers could tap that inexpensive pool of native English speaking workers?

Think about it.

A Registered Nurse with 15 years of relevant experience shoots her husband after learning of his infidelity. She’s sentenced to 10 years in prison for her misdeed. Why waste all that knowledge and expertise? Perhaps a struggling family practice could hire her as a contributor to a monthly newsletter for patients, or she could help man a 24-hour “ask a nurse” hotline.

I believe in neighbors helping neighbors.

Does it matter that one neighbor is imprisoned and the other isn’t?



Since the concept is so new to me and my logical side is battling with my more human side on this issue, I think it’s worthy of significant thought.

Why We Should Open the Floodgates of Prison Labor to the Little Woman (and Man)

In America, we love locking people up as much as we love guns.

  • According to The Utopianistthe United States imprisons more people than Russia, Germany, the United Kingdom and 32 other European countries combined.
  • In 2010, the number of people behind bars in this country was roughly 2.3 million – about 1 in 100 adults.
  • With 25% of prisoners in the world, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate on the planet, despite the fact we hold a measly 5% of the world’s population. U.S.A! U.S.A!

Like I said, we looove locking people up.

Unfortunately, the annual cost of imprisonment for the average U.S. inmate is about $29,000. However you do the math, we’re paying too much.

At such a steep cost to society, we need these people to stay free. Studies show having a meaningful job in prison helps lower the likelihood an inmate will return to criminal behavior upon release.

Although some balk at the idea of criminals competing for jobs with free wo(men), part of an inmate’s wages can be used to pay restitution or to otherwise reduce the taxpayer’s burden.

And don’t forget, we already have the option to employ a might-be-free-might-be-a-slave foreign worker through websites like Odesk and Elance. All things being equal, I’d hire an American prisoner over a foreigner any day.

I certainly don’t want to encourage the senseless incarceration of millions of Americans, but if they’re gonna be in jail anyway…

Which brings me to the opposing viewpoint.

Why We Shouldn’t Pimp Out Prisoners to Private Businesses

The reason I dislike private prisons is that I believe lawmakers are lobbied to create more jailable offenses and toughen sentencing to increase occupancy and increase profits. As if we don’t have enough people in jail already, I’m afraid the number would skyrocket if there was widespread use of affordable, captive labor.

Although part of an inmate’s wages can be used to help defray the cost of imprisonment, according to The Nation, much of this money is used to expand our already bloated prison system.

Some legislators want to require inmates housed in low-security prisons to work at least 50 hours a week. This sounds like a fantastic idea until you consider certain states don’t compensate prisoners in cash but in the form of shortened sentences. Then, the concept starts to reek of slavery. I don’t trust that the average prison sentence wouldn’t magically increase.

For now, I’d approach hiring a prisoner with great excitement and hesitation. What about you?

Would you consider using prison labor in your business? Why?

This blog post was chosen as an Editor’s Pick of the TotallyMoney Blog Carnival #49 at Mother Miser. Woo hoo!

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

20's Finances January 6, 2012 at 11:35 AM

I agree that something should be done to prevent so many people from going to prison. It doesn’t work the way it is supposed to and it definitely costs way too much $!
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Shawanda January 6, 2012 at 8:15 PM

I think it'd help to end the war on drugs. Personally, I like harm reduction programs. If people are going to use drugs anyway, it's worthwhile to pay for programs that'll help them reduce the amount of harm they inflict on themselves and, potentially, society.


JT. January 8, 2012 at 11:39 PM

I completely agree. There's a point at which you can blame people for making poor decisions and ending up in prison. But on the other side, shouldn't we recognize that over-stuffed prisons might just be another indication we have way too many laws?

The War on Drugs is a complete waste of time, and a perfect example of having too many laws. I'm sure drug offenders do create some kind of cost to society, but given the $29,000 figure you cited I'm lead to believe jailing them is costlier than letting them go free. Besides, it's your body – put into it what you want.


annie January 6, 2012 at 12:33 PM

Way before I was born my father was on a Georgia chain gang while in prison. The work was hard and the treatment (based on his stories) was inhumane.

Even at that, I feel that if prison were made less cushy, less people would try to go there.so I have no issue with prisoner labor if done in a reasonable manner (like that tilapia farm).
Annie at Annienygma.com


Shawanda January 6, 2012 at 8:19 PM

I don't have any problem with the tilapia farm. I think the whole set up was a fabulous idea. I'm just suspicious big corporate money would influence lawmakers to continue to serve up as much captive labor as possible for as long as possible. Other than that, I like it.


JP @ Novel Investor January 7, 2012 at 1:09 AM

Those numbers are surprising! Certainly don't have a problem with having prisoners working. But we may want to address fixing the laws that put people in jail in the first place. Those numbers are too high.


Shawanda January 7, 2012 at 6:16 PM

Reducing the number of folks in prison is definitely the best solution. If we're locking up more people than any other country in the world, then there's something seriously wrong with the system, seriously wrong with our people, or seriously wrong with both. And for that, we should be ashamed.


Dustin May 24, 2012 at 5:43 PM

JP the number of inmates and the cost per inmate is unbelievable. I think the idea of addressing the number is exactly right, but I don't feel that the adjustment of the laws would alleviate this issue. Instead of addressing the laws, or what sends people to prison, why not address what can be done to ensure someone that has been incarcerated would never want to go back to prison. If prison were unbearable, would you want to go back?

With 6 million of our citizens in prison at one time in their lives, why change the laws for the 305 million that have not been in prison.

I think the approach is complex and multi-faceted, as one solution will not fix all of these problems, but lessening our laws, which are already pushed to the max, will be pushed even more if they are lessened at all. That is pushing of boundaries/barriers is human nature, and is how we learn.

A quick example. In our society, we know that when we drive, we can drive 7 or 8mph over, with no problem, so most of us drive 62 or 63, in a 55. With that, if a law enforcement officer gave a ticket every time someone was going at a speed of 56mph or great we would drive closer to 51 or 52, maybe 55 if we were in a hurry.

We do this because we live our lives on a scale. If we make 40,000 a year, we buy a honda, if we make 400,000 we buy a bentley. Same thing with what we consider a crime as a society. If barrier A is a crime, instead of say 50 feet back from barrier A, we nudge up really close, or go past it a few feet and hope no one is looking.


Shawanda May 29, 2012 at 5:26 PM

"If prison were unbearable, would you want to go back?"

I don't know how unbearable you could make prison without subjecting inmates to "cruel and unusual" punishment. If laws and the related sentences are stupid and/or ineffective, they should be changed. Numbers in non-relative terms are practically meaningless. The U.S. has more of its population imprisoned than any other country in the world. Something is amiss.


Barb Friedberg January 7, 2012 at 11:19 PM

Shawanda, I've thought about this issue as well. Something does seem odd that private companies can benefit from cheap and captive labor. I'd really like to look at the financials of these arrangements. How much do they pay the respective governments for the privilege to use their labor?


Amanda L Grossman January 8, 2012 at 2:26 AM

I really have to think about this one. Not sure where I stand. And ofcourse I have the image of Scarlet and her prisoner cheap labor from Gone with the Wind in my head (not helping).


Don@MoneyReasons January 8, 2012 at 9:06 PM

In American, I think it's hard for kids especially when the media glamorizes crime and being a gangster!

Personally, it would depend on the person and what type of work they are involved in. I don't think I would want that person working with any form of financial work. But it also depends on the person and they crime they committed. No sex offenders in a daycare company… etc…

It would be tough to hire someone in prison, especially in an environment where there are so many looking for jobs.

Plus, if you used prison labor and they made a mistake or did something that would cause a lawsuit?

When a woman on a call with 911 has to ask for permission to shoot someone (presumably because of potential lawsuits) breaking into her house to harm her, well…


Don@MoneyReasons January 8, 2012 at 9:07 PM

Thanks for a very thought provoking post! :)


101 Centavos January 8, 2012 at 10:01 PM

The whole idea of privatizing prisons for public restitution leads to an inherent conflict interest. I've no doubt that the owners of Wackenhut and other similar companies have every interest in a tough-on-crime approach… more paid-for tenants for them.
Great post, by the way.


Zinedine January 17, 2012 at 6:38 AM

They're in prison for a reason. You want to hire a psycho that shoot her husband ? Go for it. LOL

Plus using them smells like slavery to me.


Shawanda January 17, 2012 at 8:45 PM

Not everyone who shoots someone is a psycho.

As mentioned in the post, a lot of people are in prison for bullsh*t reasons. There's both good and bad that comes with prison labor. Our primary objective should be reducing the number of people we incarcerate.


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