Prison Labor Essay

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Prison inmates rarely enjoy control over their labor in the ways that ordinary members of civil society take for granted. In many countries, prisoners are viewed as having legal duties to work, meaning that they can be compelled to work, though limits exist on the extent of that compulsion. Considerable variation exists with regard to the remuneration of prison labor. In some countries, prisoners are supposed to receive wages close to those enjoyed by free laborers. In other countries, prison labor is not paid at all, though inmates are granted other forms of compensation. In the United States, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude, but made an exception to the ban on the latter for individuals serving prison sentences. This has been interpreted by the courts to mean that prisoners can be compelled to work and do not have to be paid a minimum wage or any wage at all. The ethical issues raised by prison labor are numerous and complex. Four of them are of primary concern:

  1. Who has rightful control over the labor of prisoners?
  2. At what levels or in what ways should prison labor be compensated?
  3. What is the purpose of having prisoners work?
  4. To what extent should society seek to prevent the displacement of free workers by incarcerated ones?

Many legal jurisdictions assume that the government rightfully controls the labor of prisoners and thus, they can be justifiably compelled to work under terms and conditions dictated by the government. Yet, such a position is not without its difficulties. Even offenders locked up in prisons retain certain basic moral and legal rights—to such things as freedom of speech or religion. Some principled argument must therefore be advanced to show why offenders lose a right as basic as that of control over their own labor. Also, if the government rightfully controls their labor, is it permitted to work inmates to exhaustion (or death) or require them to perform dangerous work or work that might cause disease or disability? It might be claimed that there are limits on the kinds of labor that the government can require of inmates and the conditions under which it can be performed. If so, how are these limits consistent with regarding the government as having de jure control over inmate labor? Further, how far can the government go in compelling prisoners to work? Can it withhold basic necessities from them or must it employ other incentives?

An alternative view is that prisoners retain rightful control over their labor and the government must seek to attract, but cannot legitimately compel, them to work. Importantly, this alternative is consistent with the government exercising some control over what inmates do with the proceeds of their labor. Hence, prisoners might be made to pay for some of their own upkeep, required to pay restitution to victims or the larger community for the negative effects of their crimes, or required to support their dependents. Some of these constraints on the proceeds from their labor are akin to those many free citizens have to endure.

Prisoner labor is notoriously less productive than the work of free laborers. Prisoners are often less motivated to work or unskilled at it, their work is routinely interrupted in the interest of security, and there is a high degree of turnover as inmates cycle in and out of prison. For all of these reasons, the wages of prisoners tend to lag behind those earned by free laborers. It does not follow that prisoners should not be paid for their work or paid at very low wages. Indeed, if prisoners rightly control their own labor, then to pay them well below what free workers earn is to exploit their captivity. Also, if they produce goods for private enterprises, and are not paid at levels close to those of free workers, private companies will be enriched at their expense. Inmates could be compensated for their labor in other ways, such as by grants of additional privileges or discounts from their sentences, in the form of “good time.” Yet, the latter seems a dubious ground on which to reduce offenders’ sentences and the former does little to enable them to fulfill the responsibilities they have to victims and others in the community.

Historically, the aim of imprisonment at “hard labor” was to punish offenders. Contemporary defenses of prison labor usually focus on rehabilitating offenders or requiring them to pay back the government or communities for the costs of their crimes. Many  young offenders  lack significant legal work experience or skills. Prison labor could help remedy these deficits and thereby aid in the reduction of recidivism. There is a long and distinguished line of argument according to which prison life should be made, as far as feasible, to resemble life in civil society. Instead of consigning prisoners to idleness and passivity, as many contemporary prisons do, inmates might be encouraged to take some responsibility for their lives through work. Though there are risks in having prisoners work, they might be more than counterbalanced by the positive effects of prisoners acquiring work habits and skills, and having their time occupied by useful, productive activities.

If prisoners are to have access to paid labor, the government will have to facilitate it. Facilitation can take numerous forms and prisoners could produce goods and services for the government or for sale in commercial markets. Yet such facilitation faces the objection that those who have violated the law should not be enabled to find work, especially if doing so deprives law-abiding citizens of jobs. However, not only are there myriad benefits to the facilitation of inmate labor, doing so could be limited to the production of goods and services for which there is little competition in the private sector. In that way, any tendency of prison labor to compete with the labor of free citizens would be minimized.


  1. Garvey, S. “Freeing Prisoners’ Labor.” Stanford Law Review, v.50 (1998).
  2. Hawkins, G. “Prison Labor and Prison Industries.” Crime and Justice, v.5 (1983).
  3. Lippke, R. L. Rethinking Imprisonment. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  4. van Zyl Smit, D., and F. Dunkel. Prison Labour: Salvation or Slavery? International Perspectives. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 1999.

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