Most people are at least intuitively aware of the connection between poverty and prison. As Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, has said, too often the opposite of poverty is not wealth—it is justice. A 2015 investigation by the Prison Policy Initiative noted that across race, gender, and ethnic groups, incarcerated individuals earned 41 percent less than their peers before they were locked up. Having been incarcerated also makes it much more likely a person will suffer poverty post-incarceration, as having a criminal record makes it harder to find work, get student aid, and access many basic social programs. Prison causes poverty, but poverty also often leads to prison. It’s a devastating cycle.
To make matter worse, many people in prison have never had a job. And once out of prison, prior incarceration is often an absolute barrier to employment. So, making a sustainable income possible for former inmates after their release is crucial to lowering re-incarceration rates, which more Americans are beginning to realize have reached levels indicative of a national crisis. When you consider the fact that 95 percent of the incarcerated will eventually be released, it becomes apparent how urgent it is to break this cycle.
There is one underexplored potential solution to battling both the prison-industrial complex and the poverty-prison-poverty cycle: prison employment. Programs that put prisoners to work have the potential to offer job training, teach new skills, and—if these programs face necessary reforms—offer the kind of financial stability that could put a major dent in incarceration rates. The problem, though, is that all too often these programs are closer to slave labor than meaningful employment, paying pennies per hour even when the law requires otherwise. The 13th Amendment allows labor for the purpose of punishment, but that doesn’t make it right—or beneficial.
Late last year, Whole Foods was widely criticized for selling tilapia and goat cheese produced through inmate labor. These items, marked with the names of small farms in the West, were actually made by inmates working for between $0.74 and $4 per day to milk goats and raise fish. The disparity was stark: While inmates raising fish worked for pennies, customers could pay $10 for a piece of cheese. Whole Foods dropped the inmate-produced goods. The conversation died.
But it’s a vital conversation. Meaningful jobs in prison—jobs where the inmate stands to gain, rather than enforced work for the sake of punishment—are critical to rehabilitation. Inmates across the country have worked in all manner of jobs, running call centers, training police dogs, making dental devices, publishing braille books, even handling rodeo bulls. In California, inmate firefighters are seen as heroes.
These programs can transform day-to-day life inside in a way that makes prison a more survivable place. When people think of the horrors of prison, they think of abuse by guards and assaults by other inmates. But the numbing, soul-eroding boredom that comes with incarceration—the debilitating vacuum of day after day with no hope for anything other than a grinding routine of cell, yard, and maybe some TV—is another major element of the dehumanization. Chrisfino Leal, a former client of mine, is an expert on the realities of what it takes to turn your life around on the inside.
When I met Leal, he was sentenced to life under California’s abysmal three strikes law. In large part due to his extraordinary rehabilitation, we were able to have him resentenced and released—and thanks to the work he did in prison, he had three job offers waiting for him when he got out. Leal’s maintenance job on the inside doing carpentry, plumbing, and electric work meant everything to him. “I was looking down the barrel of a life sentence,” he told me. “[But] I could see daylight at the end of that barrel. That’s what I focused on.” After graduating from Patten University while inside San Quentin and delivering a moving valedictorian address, he went on to help found a rehabilitative program, the Last Mile, which pairs inmates with tech entrepreneurs. The program gives inmates—some of whom had never even seen a cellphone—access to a technological education.
In a prison without vocational programs, Leal told me, “You start feeling worthless.” Prisoners, he emphasized, “want something to do with their lives. When there’s opportunities to work, people are lined up.” For many, this is a change: “Many of the people on the inside have never had a job before. Never. Just learning what it means to wake up every day and be on time for work, that’s a really big deal.”
Richard Subia, former director of the Division of Adult Operations at the California Department of Corrections, oversaw all 33 of California’s state prisons at the culmination of his 26-year career and has a particular interest in rehabilitation. He underscored how the rehabilitative potential of these programs is twofold—creating a financial sense of autonomy and security, but also changing how an inmate sees himself. “Christmastime comes, and maybe an inmate works and only has a small amount of money, but at least he feels like he’s participating in what’s going on in his family,” he said. “I can pull an inmate trust account and see where every month, or every other month, he’s sending out money to his daughter, to his son, to assist with something. He still feels a connection to the family. That’s very important inside.” Data backs up Subia’s impressions: Family connections and maintaining community ties are intimately related to reducing recidivism.
There’s also a sense of identity that an individual can derive from these jobs. Subia, as warden, insisted on inmate graduation ceremonies, replacing mugshots with proud photos in cap and gown. New skills were transformative. As Subia points out when mentioning the California firefighting program, “When you look out your window, you don’t think, ‘There’s a convicted felon out there fighting a fire.’ You think, ‘There’s a firefighter out there and he’s saving my house.’ ”
Not only are these programs life changing, they drop post-release crime rates. One comprehensive meta-analysis from New York University School of Law concluded that good vocational programs can drop recidivism by 20 percent, raise earnings post-release, and diminish future criminality. Another study, by the Florida Department of Corrections, indicated that inmates who earned a vocational certificate were 14.6 percent less likely to recidivate. In-prison vocational programs had a substantial and positive effect even for groups of inmates who would normally struggle more upon release—young men, prior recidivists, and those with reduced cognitive abilities. Also, the benefits of these vocational programs exceeded the expense—the Florida study suggested that the drop in recidivism alone saved Florida taxpayers $3.2 million per year.
We know these programs make people less likely to reoffend by providing job skills, education, engagement, and staving off hopelessness—but what about that problem of poverty? The anger with the Whole Foods situation wasn’t that inmates were being given a chance to raise goats, it was that the cheese made by an imprisoned community for pennies per hour was being sold in wealthy neighborhoods for dollars an ounce, smacking not only of unfairness but inviting comparisons to the worst shame in this nation’s history. But this doesn’t have to be the case.
Subia notes that outside businesses working within prisons can get tax incentives and are already fattening their profit margin by shaving off the costs of facilities, health insurance, and retirement benefits. In other words, there are so many incentives for businesses to use prison labor, there’s no need to bilk inmates out of their wages through endless internship programs and extensive fees. When it comes to imposing some measure of restraint on the extent to which companies can widen their margins, inquiries have focused on labor law norms—and not on the potential benefit to public safety available through protecting the inmates’ ability to earn and keep their own wages. Allowing companies to exploit hard labor rather than incentivizing them to provide meaningful employment is not just morally wrong, it’s a dereliction of our duty to public safety and rehabilitation.
When I worked in California representing third-strikers, I saw men released with nothing but a paper jumpsuit and their meager personal effects. I saw men given a bus ticket in the middle of nowhere and told to find their way home. I knew one man who was released with nothing to wear, no money, in the middle of the night, into an unfamiliar city. What if these men had been released with money in their pocket, money they had earned through their hours of sweat on the inside, entering the outside world with a greater sense of hope, less fear, less desperation—and better prospects never to return?