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Let the Prisoners Work

Crime doesn't pay, but prison labor can benefit everyone.
1998This article is part of CT's digital archives. Subscribers have access to all current and past issues, dating back to 1956.

For one key period of his life, Ron Humphrey worked a typical eight-hour day as a computer-systems manager, followed by another four hours after dinner. He worked Saturdays as well.

Humphrey was not working for a cruel, Dickensian boss. As an inmate in a federal prison, Humphrey found his work to be a constructive escape from the ennui of his cell.

Unfortunately, few prison inmates have the opportunity for gainful employment. The federal prison population in the United States has nearly doubled since 1990, and the total U.S. prison population is now almost 1.2 million. Our rate of incarceration is second only to that of Russia. Remarkably, the percentage of prisoners working has dropped dramatically: from about 75 percent in 1885 to about 8 percent in 1995. When modern "penitentiaries" were founded in the 1790s, they were designed on Christian principles, with work as a key force in helping prisoners toward reform. But public concern grew over competition for jobs from the prison labor force, especially with the coming of the Great Depression, during which 33 states passed laws prohibiting the sale of convict-made goods on the open market. Federal laws passed since then prompted an assistant attorney general in Arizona to say, "The original conception of the penitentiary was … turned on its head. Prison labor, once viewed as indispensable for restoring a healthy relationship between the criminal and society, was made literally a federal offense."

The sheer volume of prison idleness demands a massive attitudinal shift on the part of society, so that private enterprise will link with public administration for the betterment of offenders and society. The benefits of prison employment (not to be confused with the economic ...

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