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Report on Prison Labor: ‘Too Much Drudgery, Not Enough Opportunity’

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Illustration by AK Rockefeller via Flickr.

The ‘vast majority” of individuals incarcerated in state prisons are forced to work menial jobs for poverty-level pay, according to a new Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) policy brief.

As a result, most leave prison poorly qualified to find a job in civilian society that will keep them out of the corrections system, the report said.

“Prisons often claim to provide appropriate educational programming, vocational training, and other opportunities for growth or ‘rehabilitation,’” wrote Leah Wong, author of the brief.

“But as the most recent, nationally representative data from state prisons show, these facilities provide few opportunities for people looking to make the most of their time inside.”

An analysis of 2016 data Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) Survey of Prison Inmates, reveals that prisons generally fail to provide opportunities for incarcerated populations to achieve success, whether by learning employable skills or gaining educational credentials, the report said.

Among the findings of the PPI study:

    • Of the 58 percent of people in state prisons who have a prison job, the vast majority do menial work;
    • Some 70 percent of people in prison with jobs say they are required to do work rather than choosing to do so; and .
    • Only 33 percent had training for serious outside jobs, and just 43 per cent have had educational programming.

The consequences are clear from the data. A BJS study published last year found about 66 percent of prisoners released across 24 states in 2008 were arrested within three years, and 82 percent were arrested within 10 years.

Most of the work available to inmates are designed to offset operational expenses of the institution, such as janitorial duties, food service, laundry and similar jobs.

Additionally, the jobs are often compulsory with nearly no compensation, protected by the 13th Amendment exemption clause, which allows slavery and involuntary servitude as punishments for crimes, notes the policy brief..

The report found that wages fall far below a dollar an hour, most of which goes to fees and other expenses, while 71 percent of those on work assignments were forced to do so.

According to the survey, 39 percent of people who provided more than half of their family’s income before prison had no work assignments, meaning they now had no income.

Additionally, 23 percent of people who have not participated in job training say it was because they were “unqualified.”

“The Survey data show that incarcerated people are starved for opportunities to earn a real living and find purpose in state prisons,” the brief said.

“It’s in everyone’s best interest to offer meaningful opportunities to incarcerated people — for one, it costs far less to educate someone compared to locking them up.”

Another motivation: Providing meaningful opportunities to learn new skills can disrupt “cycles of struggle, unlawful or violent behaviors” and is a step towards “more compassionate — and less carceral — interventions.”

The report finds that whites are slightly more likely to receive work assignments in state prisons than inmates of color.

But educational training and programs see even less emphasis in state prisons.

According to the study, 18 percent said they never received programming because they were never offered a chance.

In addition, 11 percent did not receive educational programming because they were “unqualified.”

In contrast, punishment received plenty of attention.

The report found about half of people in state prisons receive write-ups for violating a rule yearly. Of those, 90 percent receive some form of “disciplinary action,” which can include loss of privileges like family visitation and access to the commissary.

One-third of incarcerated individuals “disciplined” for a rule violation every year are punished with solitary confinement, including 17 percent of people whose rule violations are “minor.”

One infraction that led to solitary confinement was “verbal assaults,” the study finds.

Based on the findings, the PPI recommended comprehensive rehabilitative reforms.

They include:

*Bringing prison employment into a modern, real-world context;

* Shifting priorities away from monotonous work;

*Replacing punishment with opportunity; and

 *Pulling back the curtain on rule violations and prison discipline.

The report was the fifth in a series from the Prison Policy Initiative on the state of U.S.. prisons.

The other reports are:

The full report, entitled , “The state prison experience: Too much drudgery, not enough opportunity,” can be downloaded here. 

James Van Bramer is associate editor of The Crime Report


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