Ex-convicts being discriminated against based on their criminal records is normal practice when searching for employment, yet the US justify putting over 800,000 prisoners to work during their sentences, who end up with little to show for it. It seems those who are stereotyped as the epitome of evil and immorality are invisible heroes, sporting orange jumpsuits instead of capes whilst they fight fires, stitch knickers for Victoria’s Secret (the secret being you’re put in solitary confinement if you breathe a word), and have been known to feed our ‘ethically’ conscious stomachs, working behind the scenes in Whole Foods for 74 cents a day, until everyone caught on to the hypocrisy.
Their human rights haven’t extended to protecting their lives however, with inmates being used to fight the most destructive wildfire California has seen to date- and receiving $2 per day for the pleasure. Work alike to firefighting is ‘highly sought after’ by inmates, with emphasis on their voluntary nature, but let’s not naively interpret this as an opportunity which should be, and appears to be, gratefully received. I don’t doubt that a break from the monotony of a prison cell is welcomed but I struggle to see how firefighting offers any transferable skills for future employment. Particularly as it’s made clear to inmates that becoming an ‘actual’ firefighter at the end of their sentence is impossible.
These people are dehumanised from the get go and perceived as inferior in every sense of the word. Not only do they earn a pittance in contrast to the $22-$34 an hour their ‘colleagues’ earn, their ‘voluntary’ work is framed in a way that would appeal to any remorseful and reformed inmate. Whilst working may give them a sense of purpose, the belief instilled in them that in doing so they are ‘giving back’ to the community that they so maliciously ‘took from’, (a community that is either only interested in profiting off their regret and sees them no differently because of it, or isn’t aware they’re serving more than their sentences) works to justify slave labour.
It lulls inmates into a false sense of doing good to encourage conformity to what anyone else would refuse to do. There is no legal protection offered unlike other employment, no fair wage and poor working conditions, so why would anyone subject themselves to this kind of work? The answer is because criminal stereotypes, guilt and ultimately the low self-esteem and self-image that inmates are documented to have, are played upon.
This is not the innocent or progressive act which provides opportunities to prisoners, increasing their prospects and reducing the likelihood of reoffending, that it should be. Instead, it is no more than capitalisation of the poor and vulnerable, given that disadvantaged youths are known to engage in riskier criminal behaviour. Furthermore, due to the ironic injustice of America’s criminal justice system there is a 70% chance than an African American man without a high school diploma will be imprisoned, meaning racism rears its head far more than justice does.
The term ‘slave labour’ is increasingly fitting as under the 13th amendment’s terms anyone convicted of a crime after 1865 could be leased out by the state to provide labour to corporations for little or no pay. Therefore, slavery was not abolished but reformed. The use of prison labour also contributes to systemic disadvantage. When companies can get away with drastically underpaying the incarcerated, they are not going to favour a worker with the same training who requires minimum wage, stripping opportunities from those who need it the most.
As there has never been, and probably never will be, a definitive way to determine guilt or innocence, it is increasingly unfair that the incarcerated are treated entirely on the crimes they have committed. Even if they are rightly convicted, why is dehumanising and essentially enslaving someone normalised? If the same training and willingness as professionals is assumed, there is no reason not to value the work that is given at the price it deserves. In many other situations, employment is not based on what someone has done, otherwise most of those in power would be out of a job. Instead, the focus is on who you are, often defined by race, class, gender and age, and that is the only message prison labour is sending.
Photograph: Chris Carr via Flickr