Prison Labor, Big Money | God's World News

Prison Labor, Big Money

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    A prisoner loads harvested turnips onto a cart at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana. (AP/Gerald Herbert)
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    A guard rides a horse alongside prisoners as they return from farm work at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. (AP/Gerald Herbert)
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    The Louisiana State Penitentiary was once a 19th-century plantation owned by one of the largest slave traders in the United States. It spans 18,000 acres—an area bigger than the New York island of Manhattan. (AP/Gerald Herbert)
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    Dean Crider gives a cow medicine in the dairy at the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge, Montana. (AP/John Locher)
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    Members of Brevard County’s chain gang take a water break while picking up trash along a road in Titusville, Florida. Participation in the chain gang is voluntary. (AP/Rebecca Blackwell)
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    Prisoners from the Arizona State Prison Complex – Perryville arrive at Hickman’s Family Farms egg ranch in Arlington, Arizona. Hickman’s has employed thousands of prisoners for nearly 30 years. (AP/Dario Lopez-Mills)
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At the Louisiana State Penitentiary, thousands of men work in fields, sometimes using hoes and shovels or picking crops by hand. They earn between two and 40 cents per hour. Some must work for a time without any pay at all.

The goods U.S. prisoners produce end up in products from Frosted Flakes cereal and Ball Park hot dogs to Gold Medal flour and Coca-Cola. Labor tied to sales of goods and services produced through state prison industries brought in more than $2 billion in 2021, an American Civil Liberties Union report says.

Calvin Thomas spent more than 17 years at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. He says that some days were so blisteringly hot the guards’ horses would collapse.

“It’s just slavery,” he says.

Other former prisoners speak positively about their work experiences.

William “Buck” Saunders became certified to operate a forklift while incarcerated in Arizona. “I didn’t really think about it until I got out,” he says. “I actually took something from there and applied it out here.”

Proponents of prison labor say the jobs provide a way to repay a debt to society. They can save taxpayers money. For example, food produced may be served in prison kitchens or donated to food banks.

David Farabough oversees Arkansas’ 20,000 acres of prison farms. He says such operations can help build character.

“A lot of these guys come from homes where they’ve never understood work and they’ve never understood the feeling at the end of the day for a job well done,” Farabough says. “We’re giving them purpose.”

Some incarcerated workers with little time left on their sentences work at restaurant chains, retail stores, and meat-processing plants. The pay is higher, but some states garnish (take an amount of) their wages for expenses such as room and board and court fees.

While most critics don’t believe all jobs should be eliminated, they say incarcerated people should be paid and treated fairly. Some also say that work should be voluntary.

The Constitution’s 13th Amendment bans slavery and involuntary servitude—except as punishment for a crime. But prisoners often lack protections guaranteed to most workers, even when they are seriously injured or killed doing dangerous and dirty jobs. If they refuse to work, they may jeopardize opportunities for parole or face punishment such as being sent to solitary confinement.

Losing freedoms and privileges is a consequence for breaking the law. And work is a gift from God. (Genesis 2:15) But He also calls us to treat others compassionately. The incarcerated need safety and dignity while at work just as anyone else does.

Why? Prisoner labor brings in billions of dollars and produces food, goods, and services that benefit Americans. Work programs can be restorative, but workers should be treated with dignity.

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