Critics of prison labor say the system is set up to exploit inmates and leaves them with nothing. The jobs most inmates work do nothing to prepare them for life outside of prison, creating a vicious cycle that becomes nearly impossible to break. Paying inmates at least a minimum wage could drastically improve recidivism rates.
Study after study has found what common sense would suggest: Prisoners who gain professional skills while locked up, and those who earn a decent wage for their work, are far less likely to end up back behind bars. But if prisons in America, with the world’s highest incarceration rate, had to pay minimum wage—let alone the prevailing wage—they couldn’t keep operating. If inmates like Hazen weren’t washing dishes in Massachusetts prisons, the state’s corrections department would spend an average of $9.22 to hire someone else to do it (the mean hourly wage for a dishwasher, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics). That’s 30 to 45 times what inmates make for performing the same service. As a result, prisons—and taxpayers—use prisoners to save hundreds of millions of dollars each year on labor costs, according to the GAO.
The combination of debt and poor job opportunities can lead recently released prisoners right back to prison—neither a cost-effective outcome for the state nor a desirable outcome for, well, anyone. Sometimes people land back behind bars because of their debts alone; the American Civil Liberties Union and New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice documented hundreds of cases in which people were reincarcerated as a result of their inability to pay criminal-justice debts. In one Ohio county, more than 20 percent of all jail bookings stem from a failure to pay fines—a Dickensian situation that critics liken to modern-day debtors’ prisons.