[I wrote the con side of this debate, as the only legitimate side to take as a Marxist. If you click the title link you can read the pro side as well; class interest in each argument is clear, but I’m the only one who did any research!]
Call me radical, but I see prisoners not as pawns in a larger economic-justice partnership, but as human beings who, mostly because of social factors are compelled to commit crime. The concept of justice has moved in the late-20th and 21st centuries from a notion of punishment— Hammurabi’s “eye for an eye”—to a rehabilitation approach that recognizes that many criminals have significant capacity to improve their lives if given the right opportunities. For this reason, many prisoners have access to psychological counseling and certification programs. Rather than giving prisoners “something to do,” prison labour is exploitative and detracts from the rehabilitative aspects of criminal justice.
In the United States, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported about 2.3 million people currently in jail, amounting to over 1 in every 100 adults imprisoned according a report from the Pew Center on the States. This large population makes a cheap and easily controlled labour force for corporations who strive to maximize profit benefit from no unions, no benefits, no health care, and extremely low wages for inmates. For example, as reported by Reese Erlich in the TV program “We Do the Work,” state convicts get paid $2.05 an hour to assemble parts for Honda, $5.20 less than the federal minimum wage; only 35 cents actually go to the prisoners, the rest goes to the state to help cover incarceration costs.
The labour-intensive jobs of manufacturing parts or stamping license plates do not train inmates to a higher skill level, and having a criminal record itself inhibits job prospects. A study by Pew Charitable Trusts found that “past incarceration reduced subsequent wages by 11 percent, cut annual employment by nine weeks and reduced yearly earnings by 40 percent.”
And forget about organization. Inmates in Georgia complained in 2010 of being violently beaten by guards after going on strike for receiving such little pay, or sometimes none at all. The strike, which mobilized across racial lines (it’s hardly a secret that the criminal justice system targets black and Latino men disproportionately), was called off after only six days because of the violence.
Finally, prison labour harms job prospects for non-incarcerated workers. A New York Times article from 2011 reported many states using prisoners to work in what would otherwise be public sector or privately contracted jobs, such as cleanup on highways, repairing water tanks, or painting vehicles. Because prison labourers can be paid subminimum wage, workers who try to compete in these fields will not only see fewer jobs in a tight market but are forced to take lower pay.
Canada has an impressive record in the labour movement; minimum wage is nearly $3 higher and national unionization rates are as much as 10 per cent higher. Canada obviously cares about workers outside prisons. But if we have basic morality, if we believe in payment for work done, if we believe that prisoners are human beings and most can be reintegrated into society after incarceration, we will reject the exploitative economic strategy to keep prisoners as modern-day slaves.