Most criticism of prison labor, that it’s “a form of slavery, a capitalist horror show … and even counterproductive in the effort to reform the justice system,” is unwarranted, former inmate Chandra Bozelko writes in the Los Angeles Times. Serving six years for identity theft crimes in a Connecticut prison, Bozelko was paid 75 cents to $1.75 a day to make and serve casserole. Among the firefighters in California this fall, 30 to 40 percent are inmates, paid $1 an hour to work side by side with crews making a lot more money. Bozelko says some inmate firefighters feel the same way she does about prison jobs.
Bozelko quotes David Fathi of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project as saying, “We don’t want prison policy driven by a desire for cheap labor.” According to Bozelko, Fathi argued that a captive labor force incentivizes mass incarceration. Less than half of the U.S. prison population works. In 2005, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics said that only 800,000 to 900,000 inmates of a 2.3-million total had jobs in their facilities. “It doesn’t seem likely that captive labor is the reason our prisons are overcrowded,” Bozelko says. “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.” The charge that prison labor is the new Jim Crow because of the large of minorities behind bars is “facile,” Bozelko says, and “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.”