Prison Labor

A new story emerged from Boston’s never-ending snow fall yesterday: first there was a call for people to help shovel the MBTA tracks at a rate of $30/hour. Not long after that, came a clarification: the offer was only open to union members.

Then, at last, an additional observation: state prison inmates were also clearing the tracks.

Presumably, with plenty of snow to go around, these inmates weren’t taking any union jobs, but there are still plenty of concerns with this approach.

For one thing, just how much are the prisoners getting paid for their work? The Department of Corrections hasn’t released those details, but with the median wage of state workers coming to  a meager 20 cents, I’m going to guess they weren’t paid very much.

I was really taken with the reaction to this news. The comments on Universal Hub offer a pretty diverse range of views, coupled with a somewhat hilarious attempt at citing various acquaintance as sources.

Some people were appalled, calling the use of prison inmates “slave labor.” Others were supportive, explaining that the program is voluntary and that it support re-entry.

And then, of course, there’s that old canard:

These are men who commented crimes and have lost the right to be part of society. In order to be invited back into society they’re being punished accordingly…When you commit crimes and are found guilty you give up some of your basic rights.

But how are we to evaluate these conflicting views?

Well, first, I think it’s important to realize this is not anything new. In 2011, Middlesex County inmates went out shoveling with little fanfare. Suffolk County has operated a Community Works Program for years.

That program has a particularly engaging description, reassuring citizens that inmates are under the constant watch of an armed Sheriff’s deputy and that the end result of the program is quite simply a win–win. The inmates give back a measure of the cost of their incarceration while learning the skills needed to conduct themselves as responsible, contributing members of society and the law enforcement community benefits by breaking the cycle of inmate recidivism.

There’s even a happy logo of people with shovels to be extra convincing.

To be honest, I know nothing about this program, and I don’t have enough information to make an informed decision. But I am skeptical.

Maybe shoveling snow in sub-zero temperatures is more enjoyable than being locked in cage, but that doesn’t seem to be saying much.

Perhaps we should go all Roman and have inmates engage in Gladiatorial combat. After all, that would be a way more interesting way to live. I’d bet we’d volunteers.

But these individual, probably well-intentioned, programs are not my problem. The problem is deeper than that.

Today’s Boston Globe reported that the the idea to use inmate labor “came after Mayor Marty Walsh’s office asked all city departments to more efficiently use their resources.”

Because inmates are resources.

Not people.

And that’s the problem. It’s not a problem specific to Boston or to Massachusetts, but to our whole, national, prison system.

The 13th amendment states:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States

As much as I disagree with the commenter who argued that criminals have lost the right to be part of society, who argued that punishment is the only atonement for their sins, that’s really what this issue comes down to.

I don’t know much about people in prison, but I do know this: they are people.

They aren’t resources to be used efficiently. They aren’t three fifths of a person. They are people.

Living, breathing, feeling, people.

Regardless of their crimes, regardless of their wrongs, regardless of what sins we may see upon their soul – perhaps it’s time we started treating them like that:

Like people.

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