Recently, 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 Utopianist, the 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?