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National prison strike launches over underpaid labor and prison conditions (slate.com)
573 points by eplanit 6 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 369 comments



A relevant snippet:

“California inmates were sent off to fight what has become the largest wildfire in the state’s history for just $1 an hour. These firefighters, who volunteered for a vocational training program offered by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, are often disqualified from the work after release because a required credential is denied to anyone with a criminal record.

Hundreds of thousands of prisoners are also employed in jobs outside and inside the prisons, most commonly doing work to maintain the prisons. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the average prison worker makes around 85 cents an hour. In 2017, inmates in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Texas were not paid for most of their work. Proponents of these low-paying jobs have argued that inmates benefit from the work experience and that prisons, which are already often cash-strapped, cannot afford to pay more; opponents have argued that prisoners do need real wages to be able to buy basic necessities other than food in the prisons.”

Arguing that it’s good for them is paternalistic bullshit. The same argument could justify slavery. If prisons are cash strapped, whose responsibility is that? I believe society put these people away and we should pay for it. Either it’s worth it to us or it’s not.


s/employed/enslaved/g

One thing we can do right now is start to use the correct language. Involuntary labor is not employment and we shouldn't call it such. There is even a market where you can buy their products.

https://unicor.gov/index.aspx

You can even outsource work to prison slaves. https://vimeo.com/125010485

There are even private companies that have prison slaves work for them and keep the profits. http://vltp.net/casinos-prison-labor-strange-bedfellows/

Just like slavery did in the American south pre-1865, prison slave labor depresses wages in any industry it operates in.


  But thanks to Reaganomics, prisons turned to profits
  Cause free labor is the cornerstone of US economics
  Cause slavery was abolished, unless you are in prison
  You think I am bullshitting, then read the 13th Amendment
  Involuntary servitude and slavery it prohibits
  That's why they giving drug offenders time in double digits
Killer Mike, Reagan

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6lIqNjC1RKU


It's disgusting but a reality that the 13th amendment loophole expressly permits slavery of convicts. And so the Civil War was won by the South since Plantations 2.0 continue unimpeded. Some counties' DA's lock up as many people as possible in order for officials to earn kickbacks from private prisons run by the likes of GEO Group.


It should be noted that the US Constitution allows prisoners to be treated as slaves:

> 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, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.


Just because it is in the constitution doesn't make it right. That is a document designed to be changed, after all.

Women couldn't vote for quite some time. Some people weren't fully human. Only landowners could vote. And so on.

Furthermore, it being in the constitution still doesn't detract from it being slavery.


Also, the Constitution is a minimum bound on rights, not a maximum. We don't need to change the Constitution to make just laws.


We were comfortable calling slavery by what it was back then, and we shouldn't shy away from the term if that's what's still happening. The constitution defining slavery doesn't make it right. But it does imply we shouldn't mince words.


Even if we accept that it being in the Constitution makes it right, it is permitting slavery as a punishment and not as an expedient.


i agree that's one way to read it, but it seems plausible to me that the intent really was just as a winnable end-run around abolition.


Are prisoners forced to work? What happens if they physically refuse? End up having to serve more time?


Well if you "volunteer" to work you can get less time. So yes, if you physically refuse then you serve more time.


"Not giving something"(term reduction in this case) and "taking something away" are very-very different things. You would have to be incredibly entitled to confuse them.


The problem is that many "taking something away" cases in prison can be rephrased as "not giving something."

Am I taking away your visitation rights, or am I just not giving them to you? Am I taking away your food, or am I just not giving you food?

Expectation and norms play a role in this. Suppose a judge gives a prisoner a higher sentence under the expectation that they'll work it off. They assume the prisoner will work 7 days a week, so they give a prisoner 6 years instead of 3.

Now suppose another judge gives a prisoner the correct sentence (3 years), but then says, "for every day of your original sentence that you don't work, you will spend one additional day in prison."

You're arguing that there's a fundamental difference between these two scenarios, but what is it? It's certainly not a difference for the prisoners -- they have the exact same incentive structure, and their outcomes and choices are exactly the same. It's not any different for the people benefiting from their labor; the work that they produce will look exactly the same. It doesn't even reveal any compelling differences in the judges' motivations -- both judges might reach their decision for the exact same same reasons.

So where is the difference?


You would have to be incredibly naive to believe this statement stands on its own, without evaluating implementation details and expectations of the parties involved.


It's interesting to note that the Geneva convention does not allow this treatment in the case of POWs. Wikipedia says German POWs in the US during WWII were required to be paid military wages: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_prisoners_of_war_in_the...


> "opponents have argued that prisoners do need real wages to be able to buy basic necessities other than food in the prisons"

This seems like a problem even if prisoner wages are raised. If we incarcerate people, we should provide them with toothbrushes even if they can't/won't risk their lives fighting fires for a pittance.


However, as someone whose Dad is in prison, a lot of these guys really do want to get out there and do something useful and want this experience.

Many times the people complaining are privileged elites who are inferring what these populations want, but I would caution them to not make assumptions and do their research. It is not unambiguously bad to do this.

We can talk about the long-term reforms of prison, but there are short-term concerns too that might be helpful to them.


That's true, but if you're going to use labour, then pay for labour. Anything else is slavery. Especially when this "experience" is not useful post-prison.


"Experience" isn't really a form of payment anyhow.


But it is, or interns would be paid in full.


As they should be. Interns are regularly given work that should be given to paid employees and many businesses now see internships as free labor. How many fields of employment would you work for free just for experience? And then to still be paid as a newly graduated hire because 'internship isnt a real job or experience'.

Getting over on someone seems more and more prevalent these days. I swear businesses weren't as bad about these things in the 80's and 90's,maybe it's rose-colored glasses and all that jazz.


You’re right interns are often given work that should be paid.

But not all of it need be paid. If I take an intern along to a job that I could’ve done in the same time alone, but I let the intern do the work and supervise them on how to do it, that needn’t be paid because the intern is not providing value, they are just getting training.


Slaves didn't get paid either, that doesn't mean the work they did was worth the experience they gained. Don't try to extract morality from the status quo. That literally sets your goal to "nowhere."


> Many times the people complaining are privileged elites who are inferring what these populations want, but I would caution them to not make assumptions and do their research. It is not unambiguously bad to do this.

The loudest voices are often the most removed. Watching people in privileged positions immediately infer solutions about things that rarely impact their lives is like watching Madonna give an Aretha Franklin tribute. At the end of the day, it's self-interested. Bringing attention to the matter is definitely important and a worthy cause for sure, but approaching complex problems with unambiguous solutions without much interaction with those actually impacted is not substantively furthering the cause. What seems like a viable conjecture actually becomes using a hammer to pound in a screw. There are big qualitative and empathetic parts in figuring out a strategy that aren't covered in the headlines about prison or published crime statistics.


I don’t think people are arguing that prisoners shouldn’t be allowed to work. They’re arguing that prisoners shouldn’t be forced.


He is saying they are not forced, that it's more complicated than that. They want to do it, but aren't compensated appropriately.


They said a lot of people want to, implying others don’t. And forced is forced even if you want to do it.


It’s worth noting that this is a voulenteer program and that for every day you work you get 1 day off your sentence. So you can effectively halve your time in prison.

This actually seems like a pretty good deal, what would you pay to get a day off your sentence?

That said, I think the Prision system is fucked, has horrible incentives, private companies abuse bought prison labor, etc. etc.

But I actually felt like this program was pretty good - though they ought to let them become fire fighters!


My gut reaction to this is pretty negative.

It feels instinctively wrong to tie prison time to pay - it should be tied to rehabilitation. And asking someone to risk their lives so they can gamble on reduced prison time just seems... I dunno, isn't that the thing that's usually done by villains in the story books? I mean, maybe I'm naive about it, but I have a fairly strong cultural background telling me that using people's desperation to convince them to do terrible jobs is kind of on the evil side?

Is there additional nuance I'm missing? My first thought is: suppose they were payed a real wage, but independently the prison system had a vending machine where you could exchange wages for reduced prison time. I wouldn't be OK with a system like that.

My objection also wouldn't be about the details. It wouldn't be, "Oh, maybe it'll get abused or someone might threaten a prisoner for money." If I was forced to describe why a system like that felt so wrong, I would probably say something like, "Rehabilitation isn't transactional, and a debt to society isn't something that can be repaid with cash."

So this feels like an abstraction to me that doesn't ultimately change anything about the underlying mechanics being kind of messed up.

If that's not the case, if fighting fires is purely a rehabilitation strategy and the reduced sentence isn't a substitute for money -- then shouldn't we be paying them as well as reducing their prison sentence? If we're not treating freedom as equivalent to wages, then why are they being denied wages?


I’m all for minimum wage laws to apply to prisoners.

I’m also guessing the reason the “opportunity” exists is in part because those laws don’t apply and you can get firefighters for $1/hour.

Presumably they don’t offer the option to reduce sentences from other prison jobs like laundry or cooking, and these firefighter jobs are seen as providing a form of service to the greater community, and at a risk.

Also, keep in mind that much of our economic system and policy is predicated on the idea of using people’s desperstion to get them to do horrible jobs.


Thinking out loud here - I don't agree with this, and I'm trying to get to why. I think that prison doesn't really have much of a redemptive or rehabilitative effect - quite the opposite, sometimes. So to me allowing people to work their sentences off seems fine. And even the fact that they aren't being paid doesn't necessarily seem unjust. They have a debt to society, but paying that with labour seems far better than the alternative of them sitting around doing nothing/interacting with more hardened criminals.

As others have said, though, it definitely is unjust that they face discrimination when attempting to do the same work as civilians.


> It feels instinctively wrong to tie prison time to pay - it should be tied to rehabilitation.

You seem to be reasoning under the assumption that prison exists for rehabilitation. It doesn't. Incarceration serves to punish. And forced labour is an additional punishment.

Therefore substituting prison time with extra work seems a fair trade-off, and one well aligned with the intended goals of the prison system.


It's a pretty big complete coincidence that all of these additional punishments happen to be a major source of revenue for prisons, states, and private businesses.

The most likely reason we're offering to knock off prison time is because we really stinking need firefighters. It's not a punishment, we're exchanging prison time for a service that we want very much. If there wasn't a forest fire, we wouldn't be offering it.

If punishment was actually the purpose of these programs, we would be a lot more creative and a lot more specific in how we reduced prison sentences: "Okay, here's a bottle of sterilized urine. Drink it, and we'll knock a day off." But in practice, you don't see stuff like that. Forced labor is nearly always phrased by its proponents as something that's good for the prisoner's character, and as an effective way to repay a social debt. Look over the comments on this very article and you'll find more than a few people saying that getting to work outside is a privilege for prisoners and they should be happy just with that as a reward.

The rephrasing of work as a direct punishment (especially when it's tied to money) manages to somehow makes the entire situation feel even worse to me. At least when it was transactional you could talk about it as being something that's good for both parties. I don't think that argument holds up, it's at least a reasonable starting point.

But it seems obvious to me that the state shouldn't have a financial incentive to punish people. If punishment is our goal, the way we're going about it is super corrupt.


I have to agree with you that the state should never have privatized the prison service. It sets itself up for all sorts of unintended consequences, the chief of which is lobbying by the prison-industrial complex for ever more severe sentencing.

The same applies to a lot of other sectors. All the basic utilities and universal healthcare should be public-sector, because any benefits relating to market efficiency are more than offset by distortions to the political process resulting from lobbying.

Still, the basic point stands that incarceration is a form of punishment, and it is legitimate for it to include a component of hard labour.


> Rehabilitation isn't transactional, and a debt to society isn't something that can be repaid with cash.

well said. concise and correct, IMO.


This is true. However in this case, they aren’t cashing in dollars for time off.

It’s not like a billionaire (quibble about billionaires being in jail) can load up a commissary card and buy time off.

On the contrary, the billionaire would have to work the same hours as the guy who robbed the booze store and get 1 day off for every one worked.

I’m much more troubled by having private companies buying cheap prison labor to make goods or do customer service.

It’s interesting to note as well that I think I share the same underlying thesis that prisons are fucked, with terrible incentives and I am in favor of revamping the entire system — however this one program does not bother me the same way it does others.

If I was to guess, I’d imagine I have much more progressive views about prison reform than most opposed to this program. This is fascinating to me.

For example, I’ve been speaking with VCs about doing a “prison startup” with the right incentives - including things like cooperative ownership by the prisoners themselves.

In my view crime is a context not a characterstic of an individual.


> It’s worth noting that this is a voulenteer program and that for every day you work you get 1 day off your sentence. So you can effectively halve your time in prison.

The perverse incentive of increasing prison times to generate more cheap labor.


This is certainly a huge issue. The meta-system is completely fucked, no question.

But this subsystem is being presented in a skewed way. Yes it’s $1/hour; but you also earn a day of freedom for each day you work.


'Arbeit macht frei' eh


Only 9999 days to go.


> It’s worth noting that this is a voulenteer program and that for every day you work you get 1 day off your sentence. So you can effectively halve your time in prison. This actually seems like a pretty good deal, what would you pay to get a day off your sentence?

Maybe the sentence was too long to begin with that suggests? If releasing that person in exchange for some simple work is ok (e.g. does not make us less safe, keeps victim whole etc ), why the sentence could not be like that to begin with?

I dont mean to make it general rule, I see why you want shorten sentences in exchange of good behavior to motivate prisoners. But, sentences are very long in America to begin with.

The practical difference between "if you dont work for 80cents an hour you get twice as much sentence" and "your sentence gets halved if you do" is rather small given that the number we are halving/doubling is arbitrary.


"It’s worth noting that this is a voulenteer program and that for every day you work you get 1 day off your sentence"

That's one way to look at it. Another way to look at it is for every day you don't work you have to spend a day in jail.

That sound more like coercion than volunteering to me.


> Another way to look at it is for every day you don't work you have to spend a day in jail.

No. This is false.

When you land in prison, the duration of your sentence is fixed. You can't increase it, except by committing additional crimes while behind bars. But you can mitigate it by working as a volunteer.


Maybe.

But you’ve already got your sentence from a judge after being convinced of a crime.

What would you prefer?


> It’s worth noting that this is a voulenteer program and that for every day you work you get 1 day off your sentence. So you can effectively halve your time in prison.

Interesting. You could conceivably rationalize that as being equivalent to a fair wage--every day you work gets you one extra day closer to getting out and starting a real job.

Of course that still ignores the obvious problem of how hard it is for a broke ex-con to find work. But it's better than nothing, I guess.


I think the fire program is probably one of the better subsystems.

You get better visitation, you are outside, I’d imagine that though dangerous, fighting fires is rewarding. Plus you earn a day of freedom for every day worked.

They ought to give them the training to become fire fighters when they get out though, and work to change laws preventing felons from firefighting work.


In several states, there are exceptions that specifically allow inmate firefighters to get at least wildland fire jobs (which is what they're typically doing anyway, not structural).


While we're talking about slavery, it might be important to mention that the constitution specifically allows slavery in this context:

> "neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." - 13th amendment


IANAL but a naive reading of that could justify community service may be. These prisoners were not convicted and sentenced to be firemen.


They're not being compelled to be firemen.


Well, under a very narrow definition of "compelled," maybe not.


Are you implying one could be convicted and sentenced to be a slave ?


No. I am implying they weren't sentenced to be a firemen or a slave so they shouldn't be. People have been sentenced to do community service which I generally don't think is compensated. Going to be honest, I am ignorant and haven't been incarcerated so I am lucky, but from what I can tell community service tends to be a lighter punishment than prison, and doesn't tend to be as exploitative as the uncompensated labor described by these activists. It is also proscribed by the court and not up to wardens and their friends to decide its terms and extent.

And no, I don't think anyone should be sentenced to be a slave or a firemen. Any such sentence probably would violate the 8th amendment.

[0] Insightful: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17813698


Sorry, chalk it up to fatigue and the consequent decline of my comprehension skills. I don't know why I misunderstand that sentence so badly.


It used to happen in a quite literal sense: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Convict_lease

The modern prison labor system varies from this in degree, but not really in kind. Inmates are still compelled to work in the US.


out of curiosity, do you think an amendment to that could reach consensus with more awareness? federal prison could be fixed easily with congress and the executive branch, but fixing the patch work of state level would require a constitutional amendment.

also, there are a lot of constitutional things - like eugenics programs - that simply aren't practiced anymore anywhere. so awareness and public disfavor can alter the reality without a legal change being necessary.


That exception literally exists to provide a means to cheap labor... It's not accidental. Notice how many laws disproportionately target black people (always in their enforcement and effect, it would be illegal if it were in the text of the law), like drug prohibition, and you start to see a pattern that looks a whole lot like intent. We abolished slavery but we weren't ready to end white supremacy and our laws reflect that. The Civil Rights act was followed closely by the War on Drugs. We deny voting rights and job prospects to felons, enslave them while they're incarcerated, and keep them in an underclass that has few opportunities specifically to ensure they can re-enter the criminal justice system. Is it any wonder that we have the highest per-capita rates of imprisonment?

It's horrifying when you start to see the whole process in its entirety and doubly so when you realize how much money is generated through the system. Criminal justice reform is incredibly difficult to actually pass as a result.


Right, this isn't news to me and also doesn't answer the question

Criminal justice reform has lobbyists against it, and also has a culture that is obsessed with punishment and bloodlust.

I think prisoner wages or the duties of prisoners can be addressed in some capacity, without maintaining a massive slave labor force. The circumstances around wording of the 13th Amendment, and subsequent case law may allow for redress against this outcome.

From the majority opinion in Bailey v. Alabama in 1910

> "The plain intention [of the amendment] was to abolish slavery of whatever name and form and all its badges and incidents; to render impossible any state of bondage; to make labor free, by prohibiting that control by which the personal service of one man is disposed of or coerced for another's benefit, which is the essence of involuntary servitude. While the Amendment was self-executing, so far as its terms were applicable to any existing condition, Congress was authorized to secure its complete enforcement by appropriate legislation."

So I see what the amendment says - prisoners can be slaves - but honestly, it may be as simple as that having never been challenged. Its probably why they are paid 85 cents in some cases, and only a handful of traditionally southern states paying them nothing.

In conclusion: there may not be public support for prisoner slavery, there may not be Congressional or state legislature support for prisoner slavery, and even if it got to the Supreme Court they might just lean on old case law instead of the plain text of the amendment.


Your analysis completely ignores power structures inside the US. Try to oppose the prison industry, in reality not theory, and get back to me. This is a fight I'm actively involved in. I'm literally an activist and trying to end this mistreatment. You're wrong, but the reason you're wrong isn't your intent. It's the way people assume you're right and ignore the darker sides of capitalism. The truth is that it doesn't matter what the public supports or doesn't. Prisoner slavery exists because it makes people money and it will continue to exist until it does not.


I've offered perspectives to many causes that weren't considered by the people most invested in their cause.

I've offered perspectives to John Jay College of Criminal Justice on what arguments they should attempt in the courts, even though that approach was uncharted territory.

I'm not a lawyer.

I also don't care what the public thinks, I care about influence and outcomes that I like, and the public is VERY far removed from that process except in circumstances where the public coincidentally was already aligned with influential interests.

Thats why I start with simple questions such as "can this reach consensus necessary", that "consensus" can come from a Federal District Judge in Guam for all I care. Sometimes "consensus" is "we - the government - don't find it prudent to appeal this case" such as you saw with the stop and frisk federal appeals case in NYC.

I know the lawyers that came up the Citizens United arguments on some arbitrary first amendment grounds just because they could. Guess what, they ALWAYS go for first amendment. They practically pick the judges to hear their cases too.

And when I look at the 13th Amendment and power structures inside the US, I think there is plenty of room to get closer to the outcome you are interested in.


Amazes me that occupational licensing laws will prevent these inmates after being released from working as firefighter (because CA won't let former criminals work for the government), while somehow CA is fine having them work as slaves for the government while incarcerated.


After working for and dealing with government at various levels, nothing amazes me anymore. They are layered with contradictions, perverse incentives, and sometimes corruption.


Not to mention, who can compete with a jail offering labor for 1$ an hour? It's unfair to both the prisoners and anyone else in the manual labor business


I doubt their labor is costing clients $1. The prison is certainly charging a lot more than that and pocketing the difference.


It's the same effect. If you cut labor costs by a factor of ten (or more), you can undercut the competition easily and pocket the difference. Hence, anti-competitive.


> The same argument could justify slavery.

Not to be pedantic, but this is slavery, allowed by our own constitution. Of course this argument is used to justify it although under the law, no justification is needed. What we need to do is to get rid of slavery altogether in America in 2018 and beyond. It's ridiculous that we call out other countries for human rights abuses while we have slavery all throughout our prisons, especially in the south (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Texas).


Prisoners are also unable to become smokejumpers or hot shots because they not only have a criminal record, but don't get the same training such as the EMT requirement, yet they're put in harm's way. Democracy Now covered this topic extensively.


The problem is if this were regulated or changed in some way, it would take only one or two instances of an ex-convict firefighter harming or killing someone before a very high number of people start demanding a return to a zero-tolerance convict hiring policy.

It's often a CYA and public perception issue: org X receives application from convict, considers fallout if convict does something bad, realizes it'll become a PR nightmare and that they'll be torn to shreds for permitting the hire. The risk is never outweighed by the benefit, in their eyes.


> It's often a CYA and public perception issue: org X receives application from convict, considers fallout if convict does something bad, realizes it'll become a PR nightmare and that they'll be torn to shreds for permitting the hire.

Many (most?) western countries do not publish convict names unless it's very serious, such as murder. There's no reason a typical employer, let alone the public, should know you served time in the past.


In the US, most (all?) convictions are public record, and the ones that aren't public record can still be found by employers who retain background check companies.


Such as ? Employers demanding a paper from the police listing all your convictions is everywhere in Western Europe. Even a traffic-related conviction can be a problem. This is also something that comes up when talking to homeless in the Netherlands. Tldr: conviction for something done on the job (can be traffic accident on the way home) -> fired and significant money -> no new job because "strafblad" -> poverty -> homeless


American voters are chock full of paternalistic bullshit. They consistently vote for retribution, and the absolute cheapest way to house prisoners, and give them cheap public defenders. Voters consistently consider white collar crime as relatively benign with sentences below the sentencing guidelines; whereas non-violent drug crimes (let alone violent crimes) consistently at the highest range of sentencing guidelines.

It is a society that deeply believes in retribution for "lower class" crimes and slap on the wrist for "high class" crimes. I don't like it, but I absolutely see it.


> The same argument could justify slavery

The same argument _was_ used to justify slavery, for a couple centuries.


Did society put people away, or did the policy-makers who have come to represent a shrinking fraction of the electorate and an increasingly strong corporate sector? If for-profit prisons lobby to maintain non-violent drug offenses and the ludicrously failed drug war, which swell prison ranks and the coffers of prison ownership, then how is it "society at large" that is to blame?

Issue after issue, money is a terrible influence in our politics.


>Arguing that it’s good for them is paternalistic bullshit.

Sitting in a cage or a large room with other inmates with nothing productive to do can itself be considered a form of psychological torture, which is precisely what some proponents of prison industry have argued: https://sci-hub.tw/10.2307/1147470


Maybe we should rehabilitate criminals in some fashion that doesn't involve indentured servitude or putting them in cages and reserve the latter only for those who cannot be rehabilitated. Trying to argue that forced labor is more humane is morally bankrupt from the get-go. That it's being made by people with a literal financial incentive to see the system not change only underscores that point.


Private prisons house a tiny fraction of US inmates, an estimated 8% in 2015[0] and the federal numbers are exclusively for the detention of foreigners illegally in the country.

[0]: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/11/u-s-private-...


I'm a prison abolitionist. Your reply could not possibly fall on ears that care less about your point.


You were the one who mentioned financial incentives/conflicts vis-a-vis private prisons.


Upvoted that one though - this begs the question:

should you construct an argument only by its premise, or should you try to reach the person? I think [s]he assumed that you are not a prison abolitionist and tried to find an argument that might sway you.

Is it better or worse to argue like that?


There was no prior mention of the person being a prison abolitionist. There was mention of concern about private prisons. I don't know how I am to intuit what a person is truly concerned about vs. what they state they are concerned about.


My biggest beef...is we're worried about losing jobs to Mexicans, but allow slavery here in America...I bet a LOT of slaves..err prisoners have stolen jobs from so-called 'free-loading' mexicans who stole them from Americans....or stole them directly from Americans...

Why isn't the 'right' as upset about this as they are illegal immigrants?


I am not a conservative, but I have a lot of conservative friends so I feel comfortable saying this.

The "right" will usually admit that there are incentive issues in the system, but there is no philosophical issue with incarceration. They would also say that prisoners should work to pay their own way, because it isn't fair to tax payers to shoulder the burden when tax payers didn't do the crime (this is why they love Sheriff Joe Arpaio). In general they are very supportive of "law and order" and police/military/etc in general. Of course there will be conservatives that don't feel this way, but many do.


Additionally, does the work experience card even work if many of these prisoners are legally barred from working the same jobs?


Wait, you mean privatized prisons are a moral hazard? /s


They are, and so are public sector unions: https://theintercept.com/2016/05/18/ca-marijuana-measure/


> Either it’s worth it to us or it’s not.

CA has to release thousands of prisons soon due to funding issues.


Given the sheer number of people in jail due to drug possession, including a drug that is now legal in CA, it's clear a good number of those people shouldn't be in jail in the first place.

BTW, I'm not talking legally, I'm talking morally, they should have never gone to jail or prison in the first place for mere possession.


The biggest crime is if they come back into society without the ability to add to the workforce (due to their being former prisoners) or resources to exercise their entrepreneurship (ie, no connections or learning).

Then they are targets for recidivism and society loses out. Otherwise, I'm perfectly fine with less prisons.


The biggest problem then is the stigma of having a criminal record for future job interviews' background checks. Ordinary possession shouldn't leave a lasting black mark on one's record or there will definitely be recidivism barring any cultural change in attitude towards hiring ex-criminals.


Not sure why you're being down voted. For the vast majority of jobs, recreational drug use is commonplace already.

I'm not sure the solution is to ensure that the minority that get caught are unable to ever go back to being productive, effectively being forced into finding alternative means to pay their rent/bills/etc.


> Arguing that it’s good for them is paternalistic bullshit. The same argument could justify slavery. If prisons are cash strapped, whose responsibility is that? I believe society put these people away and we should pay for it. Either it’s worth it to us or it’s not.

I'm somewhat sympathetic to the argument, but why is the focus solely on what is "good for them?" Discussions of over-incarceration aside, there is a legitimate place for prison. These people are already a burden on society--housing a prisoner costs tens of thousands of dollars--why shouldn't they be forced to take on some of their own upkeep?

Note that we do this with another class of people who are wards of someone else: children. Nobody is arguing you should have to pay kids minimum wage for doing chores...


> --why shouldn't they be forced to take on some of their own upkeep?

If keeping people in prison is an economic gain for society, you are going to send people to prison whatever they deserve it or not. And that is the case in the USA.

"He was found guilty in February of racketeering for taking a $1 million kickback from the builder of for-profit prisons for juveniles. Ciavarella who left the bench over two years ago after he and another judge, Michael Conahan, were accused of sentencing youngsters to prisons they had a hand in building." https://www.forbes.com/sites/walterpavlo/2011/08/12/pennsylv...

So over-incarceration cannot be set apart from economical profit for jailing citizens.

> Nobody is arguing you should have to pay kids minimum wage for doing chores...

Children labour is forbidden. And when they actually work, e.g. movie actors, they get paid.

Make society pay for sending people to prison and they are going to be more eager to rehabilitate than to punish. It is not the only factor, but it helps.


As disgusting as that was, at least some justice was served in the end. The judges were sentenced to 17.5 and 28 years, respectively. That pales in comparison to the cumulative prison time they unjustly imposed on others, but it does show judges aren't above the law.


> why shouldn't they be forced to take on some of their own upkeep?

Because taking away someone's freedoms is a serious thing. There should be a high economic cost to society for imprisoning people; it serves as a structural disincentive to over-use of prison.

Perhaps the morality of over-using prison should serve as a sufficient deterrent for society, but the facts demonstrate that this is not the case.

America's very serious incarceration problem needs economic disincentives because the status quo proves that this country is apparently not sufficiently motivated by morality.

And even if you don't accept this argument, it still does not follow that we should under-pay prisoners. We should at the very least pay prisoners market rates and then charge them for the true cost of their incarceration. E.g.,

National average salary for firefighters: $49,330 PLUS (good) health benefits.

National average total cost of incarceration: $31,000 INCLUDING (terrible) health care. And keep in mind that a well-behaved prisoner in a low or medium security facility -- likely the case for those allowed on firefighting crews -- will cost substantially less than the amortized per-prisoner cost.

So even if inmates should "earn their keep", the state is still pocketing on the order of 5 figures per year. Worse still, IMO that money would go a lot further preventing recidivism than any amount of rehabilitation or work ethic.


> Nobody is arguing you should have to pay kids minimum wage for doing chores...

"Chores" and "labor" are categorically different things, and the motivation for the former isn't usually "offsetting their upkeep", so much as it's "instilling a sense of personal responsibility".

This is a specious comparison.


What's the difference between a teenager mowing the lawn for their parents and someone paid to mow a lawn?

Furthermore, when a farmer's child does chores alongside a paid laborer, what's going on?


The kid getting paid to mow neighborhood lawns has:

1. The right to say "no" without repercussions beyond "not getting paid".

2. Significant statutory protections regarding exploitative treatment.

EDIT: There's also a large body of statute defining what is and isn't okay in the family farm situation.


> 1. The right to say "no" without repercussions beyond "not getting paid".

Have you ever had parents? I realize it's outside the Overton window to do anything about it, but age-based slavery[0] is ubiquitous and the legal default in essentially (I think literally) every country on Earth. It's an even more pervasive affliction than copyright, so I find your ignorance implausible.

0: in the ownership sense; actually using them for forced labor is less common


Can you please not do this sort of nitpicky-flamey argument on HN? It's the kind of discussion we're trying to avoid here.

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html


My comment was about kids mowing neighborhood lawns, not their own.

Please try to address the argument I actually made.


I was; my comment was about the purported lack of repercussions for disobediance.

Also, you were responding to:

> a teenager mowing the lawn for their parents

which was about their (owner's) own lawn.


The full quote I was responding to is:

>>>> What's the difference between a teenager mowing the lawn for their parents and someone paid to mow a lawn?

In response to which, I said:

>>> The kid getting paid to mow neighborhood lawns has:

Selective quoting tends to change the context a bit, don't you think?


One is familial, the other is a business relationship.


So your definition of labor refers only to, for lack of a better term, "work" done in a business relationship?

Then I don't think it really applies to this situation, since just as familial relations are superseding "business" relations in your example, certainly the prison relations change the nature of the business relations drastically.

But I think this is certainly labor, but the distinction between labor and chore is not so clear. I don't think it matters to the inmates, but I found it bizarre how confident HNers are that chores and labor are intrinsically different.


I think it all comes down to how the words are typically used in everyday speech. Labor is typically associated with economic gain (or general economic activity) (or pregnancy) while chores generally aren't. I know I often hear people use the word chore when talking about errands or tasks they must perform for which they won't be compensated directly by another party (like taking out the trash as a chore).

I think we started off on the wrong foot with the comparison. Even government recognizes some difference between chores and labor, as childhood labor is illegal but it's not illegal to have your kids mow the law (afaik).


Yeah. It also like, putting away clothes was a childhood chore, but using a tractor to mow a field was also a childhood chore. I guess. It was something that had to be done anyway.

Its really just an ever so tempting argument of semantics that is at this point distracting me from the real plight of prison laborers. But that's how the internet goes.


I'm not 'vageli, but my definitions are that "labor" is a primarily economic form of activity, while "chores" aren't.

Both of them involve "work", but the objectives — the reasons the people doing the work are doing it — aren't the same.


Historically, "chores" included carrying a share of one's upkeep by doing work on a farm, cooking, etc. In many places, it still does.


If a child didn't perform their chores, they didn't get years added onto their childhood sentence.

Any argument about upkeep doesn't hold water as well, because these prisons aren't using the money for upkeep, they are making a profit


And outside those limited contexts, it runs into child labor laws.

You can't premise an argument regarding the current general case for prisoners on what's now either a historical, or an edge case for children.


> why shouldn't they be forced to take on some of their own upkeep?

My humble opinion is that this creates a perverse incentive which undermines the pursuit of justice. If we as a society feel that imprisoning people is an sound, effective form of justice, then we as a society should accept the full costs associated with imprisonment. If we are unwilling to pay for such, then we should sit back and think of a more cost-appropriate solution.

The use of prison slave labor encourages more crime (via ambigiuously written laws), harsher sentencing(mandatory minimum sentencing), and recidivism because it is profitable for those in the justice system.

I can see why people would agree with your sentiment; I certainly use to. But now I think it is naive, short-sighted, and doesn't align well with what I feel is the purpose of prison (reformation).


If you're comparing grown adults to children in this scenario you're making a fallacious comparison right out of the gate.


That's one difference, sure, but the two situations are similar as well. In both cases, a person's basic life needs (food, housing, etc.) are met by someone else. When it comes to children, we generally accept that forcing people to contribute to their own upkeep is not wrong, whether it's working on the farm or cooking, etc. Why is it different for prisoners?


We explicitly do not say it's ok to force children to pay for their own upkeep. A parent is required to take care of their child and that is legally enforced, but a child can refuse all chores and the government doesn't punish them.

In fact, the government will punish the parents if they try to not take care of their child or punish them too severely for not doing their chores


That's absolutely not true. Parents are legally entitled to use coercion and punishment to force children to pay for their own upkeep. That's one of the key reasons people used to have kids until relatively recently--for help on the farm.


Go ahead and beat your kid because he's not doing the dishes. Feed them sub standard food and not enough at that. If he talks back at all, throw him in an empty room for a week or two with no human contact.

Let's see how long you can do that before the government and society come down on you

Edit: I don't think "relatively recently" even applies here. Child labor laws were passed long before we had laws allowing things like mixed race marriage, gay marriage, civil rights for minorities, and other social changes. We are no longer an agrarian society that needs mass free labor to survive


I think the tenses are inconsistent in the sentences you wrote there.

Life has more value in well off western countries today. Child mortality is low. Families have few children. So no, you can’t abuse your kids, the state doesn’t like that.


One is an adult. They have freedoms which we, as a society, have taken away due to whatever offense they have committed (potentially as light as possession of Marijuana).

One is a child. They do not have the freedoms which we, as a society, have given them yet due to their age, lack of maturity and lack of means.


What is the logic for giving more preferential treatment to someone who is a ward because they did something bad, versus a child who is a ward despite being completely innocent?


My argument for treating prisoners better than children (at least in regard to being paid for working) is that once you leave prison, you're likely in a really bad situation unless you have money to help with the transition.

Finding a job is tough as an ex-con. Your support network may well be gone, or it may be entirely composed of people who enabled you in the first place.

Most kids have years of supported, gradual transition from unpaid chores to fully-independent adults, although there are obviously exceptions to that. I feel really badly for kids who enter adulthood from foster care.


Are you arguing for child labor or are you just unintentionally doing it?


> ...more preferential treatment...

I don't see this position being articulated here. Can you help me understand how you read the people disagreeing with you as saying that?


Because recidivism is a bad


parents typically don't sell the products of their children's labor, and even if they do, there aren't systemic incentives to exploit their children, and if there are, maybe we should stop that from being a thing.

and parents usually give a shit about their own kids


> parents typically don't sell the products of their children's labor, and even if they do, there aren't systemic incentives to exploit their children

What do you think kids on farms do?


Kids on farms are not systemic in the sense that it's not a blackbox that can be scaled. You can't bribe the police chief to give you more children, for example.


Is it really for the good of the society to have a class of people who does work for pennies on the dollar? It'd seem to me that that would have a negative effect on the labor market too.


>Note that we do this with another class of people who are wards of someone else: children. Nobody is arguing you should have to pay kids minimum wage for doing chores...

Eh, I could argue that, particularly if you're adopting child after child just to use them as free labor, like society does when "adopting" prisoners.


“why shouldn't they be forced to take on some of their own upkeep?”

Because slavery is wrong.


I never understood the idea of paying prisoners absurdly little “because prison”. Why, because they’re not paying rent? And there’s no way they will find a job on Day 1 after release, meaning they essentially have not enough money while in prison, no way to save money, and poverty at release. Given that, they’ll probably be forced to steal to survive after release and...end up back in prison.

It’s inhumane garbage, and I’m amazed at how much people protest things like Netflix price increases when we have way worse problems that warrant our time and money.


I think they should pay rent and should be paid proper wages, to accelerate reintroduction to society. Don’t do any work? Get the worst cell, with rent written off. Work as a firefighter? Get $30/hour which you can use to get better living conditions and better food in prison.


You're totally right. What better way to show inmates the virtue of living an upright life than to treat them just like real people. If you pay them 85c/hr they'll resent The Man even harder and see a life of crime as the only way they'll ever succeed. Pay them for their hardwork and they'll learn they can succeed in life by hardwork, determination and honesty, all virtues that prison _should_ be about instilling.


I'm going to use a alt account for this ( for obvious reasons )...

I disagree with this sentiment, I was ( some 20 years ago ) incarcerated for drug dealing. I broke the law ( much more than I was caught and prosecuted for btw... ) and I deserved what I got, probably more.

For the record, being in prison sucks... it's SUPPOSED to suck, it's supposed to make you regret what you did to get put in there and actively look forward to the day of your release, it's not supposed to be a cushy summer camp for confused snowflakes... if it was, it WOULD NOT rehabilitate errant individuals like myself. The fact that it did suck SO BAD, is STILL some 20 years later FRONT-AND-CENTER in my mind - actively DETERRING me from doing something stupid and illegal again.

Also, for the record, I was allowed to EARN the right to work outside the prison ( good behavior / etc... ), for about a dollar a day ( usually removing trash and cleaning roadsides and tending parks and other municipal assets ) and I made more ( triple if I remember correctly ) when on fire duty.

Fire duty started the minute you got on a bus and left the prison, and ended when you got back, even if you did nothing but sit on the bus on the side of some road... you got paid for every hour you were on duty - 24 hours a day / 7 days a week - IT WAS GOOD MONEY ( for being in prison ) and it was a PRIVILEGE... because more than the money ( which was nice to have in prison, believe me ) it allowed you to go OUTSIDE of the prison, which was PRICELESS.

"Pay them for their hardwork and they'll learn they can succeed in life by hardwork, determination and honesty" -- Again I disagree, I learned nothing of the sort, what I learned is this: There are NO SHORTCUTS to success, and I should quit breaking the law and instead become a productive member of society INSTEAD of being a criminal.

Giving criminals (like my former self) better pay and treatment in prison has to be the stupidest idea I've ever heard of. If it wouldn't have been terrible I maybe would still be a criminal, because the deterrent would be insufficient.


Well, the Nordics employ this "stupidest idea ever" and outcomes are definitely better than in the US.


The author of the parent comment seems not to understand recidivism in the United States if they were ever in prison at all. The Nordic example is leagues more potent than an anonymous anecdote.


Leave it to HN to ignore someone with far more experience/knowledge than them and counter with “I read X somewhere, so you’re wrong.”


Leave it to the typical HN comment on things like that to equate heaps of evidence with "I read X somewhere" and praise some anon anecdote over solid data.


What "heaps of evidence"? What data? None where linked, just assumed.


Well, I'd like to remain anonymous for obvious reasons and will provide no proof of this assertion, but I'm actually that commenter's mother and they never went to jail.


Well, things like more lienient drug laws, harsher gun control, and social welfare usually keep people out of prison or from re-offending when they get out. Outcomes are better there because, truthfully, life is better there.


Sure, those help, but there is a lot more to the idea.

Most prisons are places where the word "criminal" is imprinted on your soul. You live as a criminal and learn from criminals. Or you're isolated which damages your mental health. If you have children, they normalize the idea of being a criminal. You lose your friends and colleagues (your "support network") so when you get out, where else do you go other than crime?

The idea behind Norway's incarceration system is simple. You deprive the person of their freedom, then simulate real life in a controlled environment. You teach them skills. You teach them how to socialize. You do everything to make sure that the criminal learns how to live a normal life.

So why don't other countries implement this system? Two reasons, both of which have to do with politics:

1- Politicians who act "tough on crime" are applauded (as if that will make the streets safer).

2- You produce cheap products and compete with the cheap labor of the third world. Why destroy a system that can produce a lot on the cheap (while banning the import of products of prison labor)?


Aside from the obvious difference USA <> Norway, saying "everyone copy Norway" is a huge generalization without much consideration for the situational and confounding variables present in different countries/societies/cultures.

Norway has ~5M people while the US has ~325M people. The US has a 5.35/100k murder rate compared to .51/100k murder rate for Norway [1]. In 2014, Chicago alone had 14x the number of murders the entire country of Norway had [2][3]. Pretty much across the board, the US has a ton more crime than Norway [4]. The scale and expanse of the problem is so vastly different between Norway and the US that is would take nothing short of a societal shift to begin to approach overhauling such a massive problem. Norway is basically sample size data when planning a criminal justice system for countries with 100M+ people that are already more socioeconomically strained.

Politics is a part of the problem, but fixing criminal justice is immensely more complicated than a 2-step solution of fix politics and copy Norway.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_intention... [2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crime_in_Norway [3] http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-chicago-crime-year-end... [4] http://www.nationmaster.com/country-info/compare/Norway/Unit...


There are many differences between American and Nordic societies.


I'm sure ALL of your fellow inmates are now stellar citizens with not one in recidivism. Not one back where they started, or leading a life of crime still... because our criminal justice system has a 100% success rate at rehabilitation.


Using an alt account and that ridiculous-sounding language does the opposite of helping your case.


The issue is not that I want to make prison suck any less. I believe it sucks and that's done by design. What I care about is instilling the skills, attitude and experience that will allow seamless re-introduction back into society. Teaching inmates how to handle money, understand finances and giving them something to buy a car, rent an apartment, a uniform for work and tuition for education isn't going to make their prison stint any less awful, but it will reduce recidivism, increase participation in the legal economy and make these inmates _people_ in the real sense of the term.

The issue is that if you fuck up and go to jail, your life is effectively over.


I’m interested in this subject. Hoping you’ll connect with me through my HN profile.


I agree. Prison is supposed to suck.


The "suck" might please puritanical values. However, it doesn't encourage inmates to get on a better path. It just churns out bitter unemployable people with high rates of recidivism.


The inmate who posted his story seems to think the "suck" has value.


We have no way to check if they were actually an inmate or just a sock puppet for their political position. Even then, they never experienced the alternative, so they don't have any more information than we do. A classic "alternative history" problem.


We haven't experienced an alternate-history version of America without slavery, so does that mean we don't have any information on whether it was bad or not?


"Make prison suck" is just one possible means to an end (the ends being to deter crime and recidivism, and keep dangerous people off the streets), not an end in itself. For some offenders, the sucky experience is enough to set them straight. For others, their whole lives already sucked at least as bad as prison, so prison is just more of the same.


Right... and who will decide that? Prison Wardens aren't exactly known to be fair arbiters of such things.

Apologies, I don't mean to come off as pessimistic. But its clear to me that prison for most folks meant a place for really bad people so nobody in regular society gives a shit for the plight of prisoners and over time it has created a system where its hard to introduce any meaningful reform.


We the People? This is why voting is important, but I’m afraid that even if everyone participated, most people still condone treating prisoners like crap. “Othering” really helps justify it in people’s minds: “oh, it’s fine to treat them poorly because they’re monsters, and everyone knows only Bad People go to prison”. Never mind that a lot of prisons are stuffed full of nonviolent drug offenders whose only crime was possessing a plant and maybe being the wrong skin color.

We have a long way to go. Treating our inmates better requires Americans to have some semblance of compassion, and considering how we can’t even agree that everyone should be able to see a doctor and not die or go bankrupt from an infection, I have sincere doubts that we will ever make things better for prisoners in our lifetimes.


I’d rather get the low level druggies out of jail and then treat prisoners like shit. Murderers, rapists, and thugs deserve to be brutalized.


I truly hope people treat you better than you would like to treat other people.


They do, because I don’t murder or rape. Funny how that works.


Prove it.


Completely agreed. It also psychologically devalues legitimate work in the minds of prisoners. After working 10, 20, 30 years at grueling jobs that pay you $1 or less, combined with inability to work almost anywhere after release due to having a conviction, it's not a big shock that theft or selling drugs will seem like a good option once they get out.


There would need to be an equivalent or greater effort to help them obtain jobs and nice living spaces outside of prison, otherwise: "Can't find a job out here! I'm gonna go back to prison and get me that sweet $30/hr prison job, where I can afford nice food and place to live. Also if I don't feel like working they'll take care of me."

Not to mention, prisons now incentivized to soak up that larger cashflow and get more prisoners


Everything should be much worse on the inside than the outside. You can use your job to get yourself a single cell rather than a shared cell, etc. and since prisoners are largely able bodied men they should be able to make enough money to defeat the cost of their room and board (probably not their guarding).


Prisons often have incentives for good behavior and things prisoners can buy to make things more comfortable for themselves. Is your primary argument that earning more and paying more money for incentives will teach them how to budget money so they know how to do that after release, and that will increase their success upon release?


I am saying that the more that life in prison encourages behaviors that will be constructive outside of prison, the more likely that ex-prisoners will succeed outside the walls. For example, it seems like right now the best things you can do for yourself in jail are to build huge muscles to defend yourself, don't interact with anyone to avoid conflicts, etc... these create very bad traits for living in civilization.

Instead, if prisoners had to pay their monthly rent, make sure their income covered that rent, budgeted for extras like meat with their dinner, etc... those skills all translate to proper functioning outside of prison.


Perhaps it would do well to reflect on the kind of society that treats people and handles poverty in such a way that they would rather be locked up and almost every aspect of their life controller, because at least they get some food.


Many states will absolutely "charge you rent" to be incarcerated. Upwards of $70/day in sometimes, handed to you a bill, or lien, on your released from prison.


To each child rapist a pony, to each law abiding productive citizen, a lump of coal.

Seems reasonable to me.


I know I'm going to deeply regret asking, but I'm morbidly curious why you think this rhetorical strategy is relevant and meaningful.

If the only people going to prison were rapists, we wouldn't have the largest prison population in the developed world as an absolute and a percentage of our population.


> If the only people going to prison were rapists, we wouldn't have the largest prison population in the developed world as an absolute and a percentage of our population.

That's not the point though, it's that no distinction is being drawn here. We already put a considerable effort into predicting recidivism, but people in this thread seem to assume that the majority, or all prisoners warrant an expensive supported release, despite the obvious likelihood that a certain number are virtually guaranteed to want to reoffend, and would use any resources they're given to do so.

As much as anyone, I am against the excessive policies which force fine people into a lifetime of criminality. However that problem can not be solved with release policy, it has to be solved in criminal law.

New Yorkers, don't seem to bring issues like their ridiculous knife laws (which frequently target innocent people who use folding knives at work; knives which are sold openly in major cities) to the ballot; many states chock full of people who complain about excess imprisonment don't vote on issues surrounding the policies and law which make soft recreational drugs an underground criminal enterprise, and produce unexpected black markets in services like hair styling.

Ironically, the people who complain about the prison population most vocally, are frequently the same people who say "there ought to be a law!" whenever the slightest issue arises in public life.


I'll leave a video that might change the way you think about the topic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sxdgPnYyj64


Bizarre records errors causing absurd outcomes should not be grounds to change prison policy except as it regards improvements to records keeping.


Then it's too bad that this bizarre record error can be seen by taking a plane to Oslo.


Child rapists shouldn’t ever be let out of jail, so it’s irrelevant what happens to them there.


> Child rapists shouldn’t ever be let out of jail

Possibly unfortunately (though it's not that simple, as prosecutors, being human, still err), the legislature disagrees with you. With personal experience in a proceeding of a charge like this, I assure you child rapists are usually let out of jail before murderers.


>child rapists are usually let out of jail before murderers.

And for damn good reason. If murder carries a shorter sentence than raping a child, well guess how a rapist might make sure their victim never testifies.


Murderers aren't in prison forever, so sentences shorter than murder sentences don't last forever either, is my point.


Make them a eunich (surgically remove balls/testicles/penis/leave a catheter to pee out of), and a life-time ankle bracelet, and a brand on their forehead saying they're a child molester.

This way they still suffer for life, and people know to steer clear, but they don't cost $$ to keep in prison. Win/Win.


Murders should get the needle, child rapists a life sentence.


>Given that, they’ll probably be forced to steal to survive after release and...end up back in prison.

But that's precisely the thing, isn't it? For-profit prisons, a multi-billion dollar business, are precisely incenctivised to bring and keep and many prisoners inside as possible. It's an economic incentive that works precisely against the social goals we as a society would like to achieve (for the great gain of a select few). Absolutely disgusting.


> For-profit prisons, a multi-billion dollar business, are precisely incenctivised to bring and keep and many prisoners inside as possible.

For-profit prisons are obviously a bad policy, but only 8% of America's prisoners are incarcerated in them (http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/11/u-s-private-...) and it's not clear that they are either necessary nor sufficient as a cause for these problems.


Not the only cause, no, but their impact can be felt far beyond those 8%, via their intense lobbying for e.g. mandatory minimum sentencing, making life tougher for convicts after they're freed to maximise recidivism, etc


As long as there's a corrections officer union you'll have the exact same lobbying.

Most of these policies were enacted during the 1960's-1990's crime wave as a response to it, and not as some sort of special-interest conspiracy. It turns out that unintended consequences are a lot more common than sinister special interest conspiracies.


I mean, I think you might understand why people protest Netflix price increases because it affects them. When things affect people personally, they care. That's why prisoners themselves are striking here, to bring attention to their struggle as well as advocate for themselves.


I’m not sure prisons should offer gainful employment to prisoners.

Teaching, training, therapy, yes, please, absolutely. Humane conditions and treatment from the guards most definitely.

But minimum wage? I’m not sure. I like the idea of inmates being able to complete their sentence with some funds they’ve saved up to help get back on their feet. But that’s what halfway houses are supposed to support I guess?


But we don't provide that stuff either. Most prisoners have to pay for basically everything but the bed they sleep on, prison clothing, and food - which is sometimes bad. Need soap? Tampons? Underwear? Be prepared to buy it. We don't provide halfway houses for everyone either [1]. No job placement after getting out. No help finding housing nor any money to start a life. Parole officers often won't work around work hours, so folks have to take off work to see them.

I don't really mind prisoners doing basic upkeep in prisons (housekeeping, laundry, food prep, and things like that) for a few hours a week. This sort of thing is normal in a household, after all, and part of being a productive member of society. Anything outside of that is slave labor if you aren't getting paid anything but a pittance for it and have nothing to show for it when you leave. I don't mind it being reduced minimum wage (25-33% less, for example), but it should be more than it is.

If anything, prisoners would have a fund saved up for when they leave. We wouldn't have to make the prisoners families suffer if they can send money home for food and such. And they could buy basic toiletries.

[1] https://www.lawyers.com/legal-info/criminal/criminal-law-bas...


> I’m not sure prisons should offer gainful employment to prisoners.

> Teaching, training, therapy, yes, please, absolutely. Humane conditions and treatment from the guards most definitely.

> But minimum wage? I’m not sure. I like the idea of innates being able to complete their sentence with some funds they’ve saved up to help get back on their feet. But that’s what halfway houses are supposed to support I guess?

So, don't let people save on their own and instead force them into a new aspect of the justice system upon "release"? Didn't they serve their time in prison? Why prolong the sentence and force them to remain in the system?


Prisons should absolutely offer gainful employment because that's one of the best ways they can be reintegrated into society which I would hope is the goal of prison!

If prisoners could be given a living wage then I would bet you would have less of them returning to selling drugs etc in order to survive because they leave prison with literally nothing to their name.


Well, that's the core of the disagreement -- some people think prisons should be purely punitive.


Those people are spiteful twats.


I'm not defending the position but it is, for example, officially the position of the state of Florida.


Isn't that a problem with modern society in general that sustenance equals employment, barring some exceptions, that are more or less hated depending on the current political climate?

Also, what if they cannot find jobs paying living wage? Wouldn't they just be more motivated to return to prison?


what constitutes a "living wage" when you don't have to pay rent or buy food?


hmmm, about this not having to pay rent - prisoners with partners and children currently can't pay their chunk of the rent, but I bet many would, if they could.


Either you like a rule for minimum wage or you dont, if you start choosing who gets it you subvert the very core principle that people deserve a sustenance wage.

It would be reasonable to devote 10-20% of the wages to prison maintenance or victims reparations, but saying their labor is worth 1$ is preposterous.


There are a lot of rules and regulations which do not apply to prisoners. Likewise there are a lot of rules and regulations which only apply to prisoners.

It’s not unreasonable to treat prisoners as a unique population / special case. They are not incarcerated so that they can continue gainful employment.

Prisoners should not be getting paid to cook, clean, do laundry, etc. to help operate the prison, for example.

My understanding was jobs that provided for options to work outside the prison (like cleaning up roadside garbage) were coveted chances to get outside and maybe earn some time off for community service.

Court ordered community service can also be a reasonable punishment instead of incarceration.


The prisons are a service for the free people to have safety, they should paid by them. It is insidious to make prisoners pay for the prison, they are not the recipients of the service, its just adding a layer of oppression.

But if you dont like a moral argument, make it an economic one. Each prisoner in california costs like 100k a year: if you paid them reasonable salaries, and they reduce re-incarceration rates you will be saving orders of magnitude more money.


How is making prisoners pay for the prison any different than a court fining someone convicted of a crime?


Lowering the cost to society for a huge prison population is Dangerous.

Forcing prisoners to pay for their incarceration creates the same incentives as slavery.


Going to prison is the fine. Its more like the court giving a fine and a bill for the costs of maintaining the court.


> Prisoners should not be getting paid to cook, clean, do laundry, etc. to help operate the prison, for example.

Why not?


Because it's part of the day to day upkeep of life in general. You don't get paid for cooking, cleaning, or doing laundry (unless you're a middle class child earning pocket money from your parents). It's just stuff that has to be done.


Part of daily upkeep if it's just for yourself (possibly plus partner/roommate/whatever). I think we're talking about cooking/washing/whatever for a couple hundred people. As a job.


You also dont get to go to the toilet in, be confined in a small room, barred from using the internet and generally deprived of your freedom in life in general.


This is true, but that's the punishment that's been handed down having been convicted of a crime.

Not being paid for things that you're otherwise also not paid for isn't a punishment, that's just normal every day life in general.


Why should prisoners not get minimum wage when everyone else does? How is forcing people to work for less than is levally allowed, in dangerous conditions as well, any different from slavery?


The Constitution explicitly permits slavery as a punishment for crime, to be fair.


Right, it does, but I think this discussion is a moral one, not legal one. Constitution can be changed, like any law, it's just a hell of a lot harder.


Something being the law doesn't make it justifiable.


> I’m not sure prisons should offer gainful employment to prisoners.

Why?


Don't try to rationalize prisons don't really work for anything other than physical separation.

So why try to restrict it beyond physical separation?


I very much share this sentiment, I often think of prisons as quarantine. But that’s the descriptive dimension, not the normative.

Crime victims seem to crave “revenge”. It’s a very human thing. In fact psychological studies have shown it turns out that revenge feels quite fulfilling to the perpetrator. Societies without an institutionalized punitive systems (like much of western society has historically) tend to have family feuds which can last for generations.

I don’t think that should be a norm, bit plenty seem to think so, often quite strongly.


Exactly, but those feelings don't make revenge rational.

Trying to rationalize irrational behavior is an uphill battle. So instead of rationalizing the prison system we should aim to minimize it - and over time (likely generations) phase it out completely.


A few prisons do pay min wage, like some Arizona prisons that allow outside contractors but generally inmates can't access the funds until they are released (to prevent extortion from other inmates) which means walking out with a lot of savings after a 5 yr bid. They're doing cold calls selling SAP Hana dbms and Oracle stuff https://youtu.be/y4kkYnobf_U and former inmates move up to management. https://www.televerde.com/who-we-are/


> I never understood the idea of paying prisoners absurdly little “because prison”.

A visceral demonstration of decent rewards from legitimate work might reduce recidivism, which seems like a social good but is reducing the labor supply for prison industry and reducing the demand for (and leverage of) correctional officers and other prison employees. Lots of people have lots of money on the line, and the prison labor population is felons, who both can't vote and lack sympathy from those who can. So, the weight of the political pressure is virtually all on one side.


>they’ll probably be forced to steal to survive after release

Given the welfare system and what I've seen of crime stats, my impression is that crimes that could be described as "stealing to survive" are nearly non-existent. Even mentally ill homeless people rarely "steal to survive". The soup kitchen, subsidized apartment and welfare cheque are a lot easier.

And anyway, how many times do you need to shoplift bread from the market before you get sent to prison? Is such a thing even possible?

People commit prison-worthy crimes because they need a lot of money fast for drugs, or out of anger or for revenge or over gang disputes and personal disputes. "Stealing to survive" doesn't really exist in developed countries, so your argument makes no sense.

I'd be really interested in any crime stats to support the idea that a substantial number of prisoner are there for crimes that were necessary for survival. Do we even send people to prison for crimes like this?


I've had "low value" things stolen from me like tarps, tents and food (and yes, I realize I'm dumb for not learning to lock these things up the first time they were stolen). While it may have been vandals, I have a strong feeling it was people steeling to survive.


A factor in punishment is “repeat offender”, and these people were already in prison so any new crime looks bad from the start, regardless of how petty it may be.


Your argument assumes that the goal of prisons is to keep their customers from returning to prison.


It is clearly the government's responsibility to align the prison's incentives with the best outcome for society. That includes people not reoffending.

You are right that currently the US fails in this regard, but that doesn't mean it has to be that way.


I would have said that the responsibility of government is to act on behalf of the people. The people may have different ideas than what is technically the best outcome for society.


It’s not clear to me that the government is concerned with improving society.


The money they're earning is, I guess, intended for the commissary, so instead of just giving you stuff like soap they can make you work for it.


The alternative is sitting inside all day. Having something to do at least lets you get out and make your day more interesting.


Oh come on. Fighting forest fires is dangerous work.


Oh yeah, I wasn't thinking in that context. Just in context of cooking or doing cleanup or something like that.


You can’t look at the reasons as rational. Prisons are simply justifying their profits poorly.


I don’t disagree but just wanted to say something:

The whole point of money was to make it possible for 2+ good actors to do legal (and different) work/goods/services for each other while profiting.

Most people who end up in prison were “bad actors” by definition. The system was not benefiting from them. And thus I can’t help thinking that they don’t really deserve any of the system’s monetary medium of exchange.


It's not about what criminals deserve, it's about how to make sure they stop being criminals. A broke ex-con without a support network is much more likely to return to crime just to survive. Helping them avoid that is a net gain to society as a whole, whether they deserve it or not.

Focusing on what people "deserve", instead of on what's best for society, is the reason the US has the worst health care in the western world while also spending more tax money on health care per capita than anyone else on the planet. We'd rather spend 10 dollars making sure no one ever gets more than their fair share than risk one dollar going to someone who doesn't "deserve" it.


Except they're not really "bad actors"

Most people in prison today are there because of "drug offenses" which usually means they got caught doing drugs themselves (not dealing drugs or being involved in drug induced crimes).


This is a REALLY common misconception.

Including "drug offenses" the U.S. incarceration rate is 693 per 100,000.

Excluding "drug offenses" the U.S. incarceration rate is still 625 per 100,000.

https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/releasing-drug-offender...

I agree with you that we should get the drug offenders out. But the characterizations that "most people are in prison for drug offenses" should be updated.


Is incarceration rate not somewhat deceptive though? A more interesting statistic would be how many of each 100,000 had ever spent time in prison.

From here on is only speculation and I'll do a deeper dive when I'm not on a phone. I'd like to see the rest of the statistics broken down by offense. Additionally I suspect that drug offenses would lead to repeated incarceration and perhaps eventually worse offenses.

Most violent offenses are committed in the context of existing relationships though, so there are certainly non-policy and certainly non-drug-policy ways to address crime in the United States.


The linked article is interesting but also slightly misrepresented. The 693 number is incarcerations without federal drug offenses. The change would be from 725/100k to 625/100k across state and federal, which is a slightly more significant change.


Note, you have a minor misquote of the statistic from the article; it's 725 per 100000:

> From BJS [Bureau of Justice Statistics], [...] an incarceration rate of about 725 people per 100,000 population.

> Suppose every federal drug offender were released today. That would cut the incarceration rate to about 693 inmates per 100,000 population. Suppose further that every drug offender in a state prison were also released. That would get the rate down to 625


This is linked elsewhere in the thread (as well as that FiveThirtyEight article), but it bears repeating here: as far as the federal incarceration rate goes, the number is actually 46% [1]. Which isn't a majority, but it's damn close — and way too high.

(It should go without saying that these are all simplistic lenses on a very complex, multifaceted problem, and in reality many parts of the justice system need reform.)

[1] https://www.bop.gov/about/statistics/statistics_inmate_offen...


I think you are wrong about "the whole point of money" and do not believe that profit is a requirement for currency to function. Money has many simple purposes outside of profit.

Even taking your claim at face value, whether or not someone "deserves" to benefit from some profit-based exchange of labor for currency seems irrelevant. If work has a concrete value and someone is unable to receive fair compensation for that work, and all of the value is received by someone else who did not do the work, this is inherently unfair and unethical (and by definition, slavery).


The point of a medium of exchange (money) is to make it easy for there to be a coincidence of wants between people who might transact. It has nothing to do with whether you're a "good" or "bad" actor.


Well... sure, but it depends on how you look at it.

In a monetary society (as opposed to credit or barter (intermediary like you suggest) — monetary circuitist terminology), money is created as a debt/credit tuple to facilitate an intertemporal private contract (tit-for-tat), of which cash is a physical token representation. The etymology of “credit” is “faith”, “honor”, “merit” etc. That of debt, at least in some germanic languages (“schuld”) literally means “guilt” and has connotations of sin and atonement.


I don't think arguments from etymology are of much relevance in modern economics, to put it mildly.


All value derives from subjective meanings, so you actually couldn't be more wrong


Money is a tool, nothing more (ideologically). Calling on ideology to restrict potentially helpful uses of a tool is a dangerous path to tread.

No matter what crime someone's committed, they're still a person, and if our goal is more productive members of society, cutting people off from the main tool for goods exchange will not move us toward that goal.


Is it preferred to release two bad actors or to release two good actors? Being in prison is a punishment, but it is also rehabilitation (ideally).


> Most people who end up in prison were “bad actors” by definition.

Disagree. Majority of the offenders are there for non-violent drug offenses. It is also possible some of them are serving sentences for crimes that are no more crimes. California has liberalized marijuana but the prisoners are still in jail for the crimes that no more crimes.



>Majority of the offenders are there for non-violent drug offenses.

I don't believe this is true.


If only we had access to some kind of worldwide network which would allows us t-

-found it.

https://www.bop.gov/about/statistics/statistics_inmate_offen...

46% drug offenses, 6.8% immigration and we’re already past the 50% mark. That as they say, is a majority.

Edit: Looking at all populations state, federal, local yields: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2018.html

Note: But the offense data oversimplifies how people interact with the criminal justice system. A person in prison for multiple offenses is reported only for the most serious offense so, for example, there are people in prison for “violent” offenses who might have also been convicted of a drug offense. Further, almost all convictions are the result of plea bargains, where people plead guilty to a lesser offense, perhaps of a different category or one that they may not have actually committed.


Why does this data disagree hugely with that?

https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/releasing-drug-offender...


It doesn't; it just lumps the federal and state incarceration rates together to draw its conclusion. From the FiveThirtyEight article:

> According to the Bureau of Prisons, there are 207,847 people incarcerated in federal prisons. Roughly half (48.6 percent) are in for drug offenses.

Additionally, the words "Bureau of Prisons" are actually a link to the same site GW150914 is citing (https://bop.gov/about/statistics/).


This doesn't count state systems, including those and it's ~20% drug offenses.

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