The Prison-Industrial Complex
Pinches Rents from Prisoners

 
Over the summer, critics objected to Whole Foods’ participation in a program that used poorly paid prisoners to make expensive cheese for the grocery store’s upscale customers, according to Vice:

Whole Foods responded to the criticism by saying it sources tilapia and cheese from CCI as part of its mission to support communities, “and that includes the paid, rehabilitative employment of inmates at CCI. They are paid for their work, and learn job skills that can help them contribute to society in meaningful ways upon their release,” the company said in a statement.

Libertarians are generally in favor of “capitalist acts between consenting adults,” even in situations that many moralizers view as exploitation. However, we need to be very careful in a situation where there is overt coercion, namely a workforce being held behind bars. The normal logic of win-win market exchanges between employer and employee may not apply in the context of a prison.

In this particular case, the benefits of the program, as expressed by representatives for the prison work program as well as Whole Foods, are real. Indeed, they resemble economist Ben Powell’s persuasive justifications for “sweatshop” labor in the developing world.

Specifically, even though (according to the Vice article) prisoners may earn as little as 74 cents per day, the participating prisoners can earn more at these private/public jobs than the inmates who perform more traditional tasks such as working in the kitchen or laundry. Just because a job strikes outsiders as horrible and underpaid doesn’t mean we should be quick to advocate removing these options.
 
Prisoners Do Need to Earn Money

Assuming the statistics are accurate, the work experience teaches valuable job skills, which may be things as basic as following a routine and taking instruction from a supervisor. The recidivism rate among the selected prisoners is half that of the general prison population.
 


One of the worst things the government does to a convict is deprive him of the means of generating a normal income.


 
More generally, though, all decent people should actively applaud “prison labor” as beneficial to the inmates as well as society at large. If that strikes you as shocking, consider the opposite scenario.

One of the worst things the government does to a convict is deprive him of the means of generating a normal income for the entire time he’s locked up. This not only leaves the inmate poorer in the short run, it also sabotages his ability to gain experience in his desired field while he withers away in a cage. Even without the stigma of a prison record, less experience means he is less marketable down the road when he gets out of prison.

Most citizens take it for granted that during a recession, government officials must do whatever it takes to help the unemployed return to meaningful work. And yet, the population directly under government supervision — namely, prison inmates — is routinely assigned stultifying tasks like making license plates or picking up litter along the highway. Why not allow prisoners to work in other pursuits that benefit consumers, while gaining marketable skills at the same time?
 
Fully Private Prisons

Far from being an aberration due to government intervention, “prison labor” is the hallmark of a free and just society. Indeed, in my lectures on law enforcement in a society committed to private property, I explain how prisons might work for those rare cases where an individual is simply too violent for most people to let him onto their property. In this scenario, different “oases” would emerge, offering room and board to these outcasts. We might label them as prisons, but these institutions would be competing for the patronage of the outcasts. The outcasts would not be able to leave the premises at will, as this would violate the contractual arrangements the owners had with the surrounding community, but the “inmates” could transfer to another institution if they didn’t like their current residence.

Given such an arrangement, it would make perfect sense for both the organization running the institution and the residents to let the residents earn as much income as possible, as long as they could do so on the premises.

For example, if a software engineer had been convicted of serial murders, he would probably not be welcome anywhere in society except in secure buildings staffed with trained guards. But to pay for his upkeep and compete for his “business,” the owners of such buildings would make arrangements for him to have a computer workstation and an Internet connection. How would it help anyone — including the families of his victims — for him to break rocks with a pickax in the hot sun? Allowing him to earn a high income could also allow him to make enormous payments to the estates of his victims and at least try to repay his “debt to society.”

Our present system of criminal “justice” is focused more on retribution than restitution, with the police and the courts showing little concern for making the victims whole.
 
From Ideal Theory to Messy Reality

In an ideal society, the term “prison labor” should not strike us as cruel and exploitative any more than the terms “office labor” or “factory labor.” Unfortunately, these observations don’t necessarily place a stamp of approval on the actual arrangements between corporations and prisons in today’s world. All such arrangements occur in the context of a monopoly government that sets the parameters of these deals, meaning that gross injustice may be occurring before our very eyes.
 


If they are able to reap a huge portion of the “markup” from the fruits of their inmates’ labor, then the prison owners will likely do what they can to increase the size of their populations.


 
For example, even if prisoners in theory currently have the ability to refuse to work (indirectly) for Whole Foods and the other participating companies, in reality the guards can make life miserable for inmates who don’t go along. The workers are hardly offering their labor voluntarily.

More generally, the state squeezes out competition on both ends. If Whole Foods and other companies are indeed paying a pittance for the products that ultimately fetch a high retail price, then the outside companies and the prisons are splitting up the spoils. In a normal market, this scenario would provide an opportunity for a new firm to come along and offer the workers a higher wage, but such bidding cannot occur without the state’s permission.
 
What Do Prisons Want?

Finally, the most perverse consequence of allowing commercialized prison labor in the present systemis that it gives the private prisons an even greater incentive to lobby for continued drug prohibition. If they are able to reap a huge portion of the “markup” from the fruits of their inmates’ labor, then the prison owners will likely do what they can to increase the size of their populations.

Yes, other things equal, giving inmates extra options for selling their labor hours — even for a pittance — can only help them. But other things are not necessarily equal, including the severity of prison sentences dished out for a given crime. To see the possible danger, consider an analogous policy issue: free-market economists are generally in favor of letting adults sell body organs such as kidneys, but if prison inmates were given this “option” — with the prisons and organ retailers keeping the lion’s share of the revenues — we might see a sudden surge in arrests and convictions.
 
Conclusion

Generally speaking, we should applaud programs that allow individuals more options in selling their labor to outsiders. If prison inmates can earn more income and develop marketable skills by working for companies such as Whole Foods, then it helps both consumers and the prisoners themselves.

However, the logic of free markets only works to the extent that the relationships are genuinely voluntary, which we cannot guarantee in the context of prison labor. More ominously, if the practice indirectly fuels government policies that swell prison populations, it might, on net, be harmful to liberty.


This article was originally published on September 24, 2015 at FEE.