Looking for Advice: Ethics of Prisoner Labor

This is sort of an odd topic to have on my mind, but I was thinking about it today in the context of a bid package I have in my hands for concession management of a park in Georgia.

The RFP kept referring to "community workers" who do 60% of the labor in the park, and part of our responsibilities included managing these workers.  In my naivete, I thought these were volunteers, and sent a note telling them that while the government could legally use volunteers, it was very problematic under labor laws for a private company to benefit in any way from volunteer labor.

I was quickly informed that I had it all wrong, that this was a euphemism for "prisoners," and that I could take advantage of their close to fee labor to do much of the heavy lifting in the park maintenance.

I must confess this is a new one for me but my initial reaction is queasiness about it.  On the one hand, we are talking about unpaid labor from men in involuntary servitude -- do I really feel good about benefiting economically from this work?  On the other hand, I do understand that work programs can be beneficial for prisoners, though I am not sure the work we need is really going to be teaching many skills.  On the gripping hand, there is "Cool Hand Luke", which is impossible to get out of my head when considering prison labor in the deep south.

One other aspect of the RFP that struck me cold was the pages and pages of requirements, including an actual oath I have to take, that I will do everything possible not to hire an illegal immigrant.  Now, that sort of thing is likely required of them by state law, and is not that unusual (Arizona has similar provisions, I believe).  But juxtaposed with the prison labor, it leaves me cold.  Essentially, they won't allow me to accept the voluntary labor of a Mexican man paid at minimum wage, but they are encouraging me to accept the involuntary labor for free from a group of prisoners.

I just encountered this about 10 minutes ago so I am still thinking on it -- the basic opportunity is attractive.  But I have walked away from opportunities before over these sorts of ethical issues -- most recently, over a refusal to drug test employees when that was a state requirement.

I welcome thoughts in the comments (I know I mentioned immigration, but in this one post I would be thrilled if we could lay off my supposed naivete on immigration and focus on the ethics of profiting from free prison labor).


  1. DirtyJobsGuy:

    My father after retirement got involved in running a thrift shop charity. Through it he was working with a Church group promoting hiring recently released convicts. They were focusing on specific training and not getting any results. I don't need laborers but I did point out that Martha Stewart had no problem getting a job when released, but guys on assault or burglary raps did. They need to relearn (or learn) basic skills in working such as controlling aggression, working steadily, and following directions without a beef. It doesn't cost the state much less to get them working than just warehousing them so the issue of exploiting for profit is small. They are displacing non-convict labor, but eventually they will be released and enter the labor market. I'd take it at face value that this is a good thing for the inmates and hopefully society. I think the biggest headache is how you will manage this service without scaring the customers.

  2. Damon Gentry:

    This may be naive, but is there a simple solution for this? Accept the cheap/free labor from the 'community workers', but structure your costs/fees such that you do not profit from them. Lower your park entrance fees, return the profit back to the state, donate to prison reeducation groups, or pump the extra profits into facility improvements. This way, your conscious is clear and both parties can benefit.

  3. irandom419:

    Showing up on time and putting in an honest days work, are important skills for anybody to learn. In this case they are probably doing it under armed escort like a gun control politician. But seriously, usually it is a reward to escape the monotony of prison life.

  4. SamWah:

    Have you seen Paul Muni in "I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang"?

  5. Matthew Slyfield:

    "On the one hand, we are talking about unpaid labor from men in involuntary servitude"

    My understanding is that they do get paid by the prison system though what they get paid is minimal.

    Just because your not paying them does not mean that they are unpaid. Involuntary is another matter on which I choose not to comment.

  6. Jason Azze:

    I think the pivotal ethical question is whether or not the prisoners have a choice to participate in this program or not. If they have elected to be on the work crews, then it is ethical for you to take the contract. If they are compelled to be on the crew, "breakin' rocks in the hot sun", then it is unethical.

  7. hartez:

    Moral issues aside, I always worry that the existence of cheap prisoner labor creates an incentive for the state and the prison system to create/keep more prisoners.

  8. Richard Quigley:

    Could not have put it better.

  9. STW:

    I suspect getting outside and doing stuff is considered a privilege and they are paid a minimal amount by the state to their prison account. Maybe you can sponsor a hard boiled egg eating contest. ;-)

  10. Rob Raffety:

    The question of involuntary vs voluntary labor is slippery. The distinction is blurry enough in a corporate office environment, let alone in the penal system. On the other hand, involuntary community service is a just and appropriate sentence for most non-violent offenses. Can you think of a better way to punish graffiti "artists"? Tax frauds?

    The real question is whether or not the system is exploitative. Does the state of Georgia's "community workers" program cause more people to be convicted of crimes than would otherwise be convicted? Are sentences longer than they would be otherwise? Are there parties who benefit unfairly or disproportionately? You aren't in a position to answer those questions. You COULD be in a position to employ some of those prisoners and to treat them fairly while they are under your employ. In the meantime, you could get a better look at how the system is ACTUALLY implemented and make a more informed choice the next time you consider a Georgia RFP.

    I wouldn't worry about it anyway. Assuming that this is part of a competitive bid process, pricing in "free" labor should result in a lower bid price from all suppliers rather than out sized profits at the expense of forced labor. If the system is truly corrupt, you won't win the contract. It will go to someone whose more expensive, "best value" proposal carefully excludes mention of the kick back payments he'll be making.

  11. Daublin:

    Tough subject! I look forward to the comments as well. Three things come to mind.

    First, it really is an opportunity to help the world out. Prisons are ugly business, but uglier when they are out of sight. I'm sure you of all people can figure out a way to treat prisoners that will be vastly better than what they are undergoing under bars.

    Second, it sounds really distracting. How much time would you up spending on these guys, who are going to be surely doing low-skilled work and who are going to have all manner of special needs? All on top of the ethical issues and the evaluating save-the-world goals? I don't know the details, but it's a concern that comes to mind.

    Third, I'm unsure about the overall program even despite what I said above. Shouldn't jail be reserved for people that are a danger to society? I'm not really in favor of having so many people in jail as purely a punishment. Accepting a prisoner work program amounts to conceding that we're just going to have a society with massive numbers of harmless people under lock down.

    Best wishes on your choice. This sounds like one of those you will wonder about the rest of your life, no matter which way you decide.

  12. Daublin:

    The problem with that is that money is money. In a real-word business, you have revenue and you have expenses, and you just add them all up. There's not any meaningful way to say that this dollar of revenue went to that dollar of expenses. Sure, you can do it, but you can do it many different ways and there's no clear way to pick which one is the right one.

    The scenario in question involves profiting from prisoner labor. IMHO, that's fine, though, presuming it's optional for the prisoners in question. It's ethically fine to help someone and also help yourself at the same time.

  13. donald:

    I don't want to touch the punishment versus protection aspect. But the unskilled labor part is interesting. There are probably plenty of stupid people in prison. Lord knows that the internet probably has video of them. But a large part of the prison system is made of people that tried to take a short cut or didn't see better alternatives. They can scheme and hustle with the best of society. Just don't put them in charge of your wallet and they could probably do anything on a campground given the right motivation and tutelage.

  14. Shane:

    If I remember correctly in your discussions of minimum wage you talked about a floor on the cost of labor. You made very convincing arguments that this was counter productive and unethical. Unpaid interns were trading their labor for valuable experience so that they could later charge for their labor and build their experience.

    My thought about this is along those lines if this is not coerced (which I don't think it is) then these guys are gaining something of value for their labor (though you as an employer may not know what). Whether it is just to get out from behind bars for a while or actual job skills. Trust me learning to take direction is a really invaluable skill and methinks a lot of these guys need it. As long as the prisoners are volunteer to do this work and can unvolunteer, I see no moral dilemma here.

  15. Guest:

    My first job out of law school was defending prisons against prisoner lawsuits, so I have some familiarity with the things I talk about below, though it was a long time ago.

    First, your non-participation in the program won't affect what happens to the prisoners. If you don't participate, someone else will use their labor. So when you compare the two scenarios, the only difference is you are un-involved.

    Second, prisoners often sued the government simply so they could get a day trip to court. It was a way of breaking the boredom of prison life. So, I can believe that there will be at least some prisoners who work for absolutely nothing just to get some time away from the prison itself. They won't necessarily be good workers, of course.

    Third, their willingness to work may be taken into account in parole decisions.

    Finally, you might find out whether the prisoners are getting any compensation at all. You say that their labor is "close to free," which implies that they are. If they are getting any compensation at all, you might find out what the prices at the prison commissary are like. It might be that the prices there are a fraction of those in the real world. A pittance in the real world might enable them to buy a surprising amount of stuff, all of which are minor luxuries to them. This was true in the Texas prisons for a long time, and might still be.

  16. ReallyOldOne:

    Good question, Coyote. Sorry, I can't add anything to what is already commented. I hope that you will keep us posted as this plays out. I suspect the bed will go to an "insider" as was speculated earlier, but I may just be cynical.
    Good luck.
    PS. Actually, I do have an opinion. I would personally avoid this one due to the extra difficulty of not being able to control my own labor force. But you seem to have the patience of Job working with the Gov most of the time, so maybe you won't mind the extra difficulties/risks involved here.
    Extra Good Luck!!

  17. morganovich:

    warren as "the man with no eyes". there's a thought.

  18. mckyj57:

    The prisoner does not have to work unless I miss my guess -- most times they receive days off their sentence for every two or three days worked. As far as being paid, they should pay something for their room/board.

  19. SimonFa:

    I'm all for rehabilitation and whilst I don't know much about the USA its something I've looked at a lot in the UK and I don't think we do anywhere near enough in preparing prisoners for release, especially young people.

    If the prisoners aren't voluntary then you'd have the same problem as slave owners, even without the moral and ethical considerations getting coerced people to do a job properly can be more expensive than paying the full rate for the job.

    I don't think there's a problem in having schemes that give prisoners
    work experience as part of their rehabilitation program, as has been
    pointed out learning to take direction is a skill in itself and one
    which a lot of people in UK seem to lack. In these cases the labour should be charged out at the prevailing rate, minimum wage I presume. To incentivise industry to provide this service they should be able to charge an education/training fee to cover the costs of taking someone who may not be up to the job and will need extra supervision.

    To avoid the perverse incentive of the State, Feds or even prison receiving that money it should go to charities or other organisations that don't have any incentive to increase the prison population. I know that's ill thought through and reading Cato and this blog I know you have a problem with civil forfeiture and I don't have the full answer, just a principle. Maybe better minds can solve the problem.

    As to your dilemma, if they're voluntary and you think you can do a good job the prisoners then go for it, as long as you reckon that you're not going to be out of pocket on the deal, as someone else will take it and they might not be as liberal as you and will exploit them.

  20. herdgadfly:

    Prisoners do not become prisoners because they are law abiding and convicts are expensive to to keep around the prison for years. It follows that taxpayers are entitled to reap the benefit of prisoner labor to offset the taxes required to keep them.

    As for me, I wouldn't enter into a contract that put these untrustworthy folks anywhere close to park visitors that my business served or employees on my payroll. Who gets sued if a patron or an employee is injured or killed?

    No ethical dilemma, just business pragmatism.

  21. Todd Ramsey:

    IMO, if you profit from the free or underpaid labor of even one wrongfully convicted prisoner, that is morally wrong. If the State profits from that prisoner, because you are able to make a higher bid as a result of the low-cost labor of a wrongfully convicted person, that is even worse.
    You can make the argument that it is going to happen whether or not RRM is involved. Do you really want it on your conscience that you are a part of a system of slave labor?

  22. David in Michigan:

    I debated with myself about attempting a comment since it is difficult to be succinct on this topic. But what the heck.

    First, you have the wrong movie reference. It should be the Shawshank Redemption not Cool Hand Luke. The ethical issue is whether prison labor will disadvantage free man who after all has to live without the free bed and free meals served at the prison.

    Second, NO, we can not "lay off of (your) naivete on immigration" because it has a direct bearing on this situation. Your going to be in Georgia and without looking I will assume that the majority of these prisoners are black and were born and raised in the U.S. Pretty sure I'm on solid ground with that statement. These are, with little doubt, low risk prisoners who lack any job experience but need jobs to make them productive citizens. Giving them something to put down in the way of job experience on a job application after they are released is the best thing that could be done for them.

    But here you are complaining because you can not hire illegal aliens who compete directly with these prisoners for unskilled jobs. Illegal aliens hurt the poor man, not the rich like you. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-SC1uUiT9s

    Okay, I'm just going to stop...........

  23. Adriana:

    Illegal immigrants are the poor man, but unlike the prisoners, they would work voluntarily.

  24. Mercury:

    I don't have any problem with prison labor in general unless it's abusive or the prison from which prison workers are "hired" is privately run. Then I believe that Society's best interests are not necssarily aligned with those of the people who run/own the privately run prison system and there is great potential for abuse at several different levels.
    Many state prisons (including in GA) are privately run, for-profit entities and there is some evidence that these guys are in cahoots with the judicial system to keep the raw material flowing and the business growing.
    Crime and punishment is at the core of the original Social Contract between the individual and the state. Although I think some government duties can and/or should be privatized (or not involve the government directly in the first place) I would argue that crime and punishment, including the opperation of prisons, shoud not be one of them.

  25. John the River:

    Abraham Lincoln: "As I would not be a slave, neither would I be a slave-master."

  26. NL7:

    If somebody were stealing my paychecks but giving them to charity, it doesn't make me feel any better. It's still theft even if you don't profit.

  27. NL7:

    So it's okay for government agencies to steal labor and plow it into things like bloated government pensions, but it's not okay for government agencies to hire middleman companies to steal labor and plow it into dividends, which are then paid to investors like government pension funds. Not sure I follow that logic.

    I don't think the government is particularly cleansed of bad incentives. Police have a lot of incentives to seize assets, make arrests, run drug raids, and put up the numbers for more grants. The government shovels money at treatment programs, DUI interlock installers, and other hangers-on - even when those agencies are operated as non-profits. The problem is not profits and dividends; salaries and pensions of government employees and non-profit employees are plenty of incentive to push more lives into the system.

  28. NL7:

    My impression from movies and shows is that prisoners like work detail, especially outside. I'll bet people doing community service would be unhappy, but prisoners probably enjoy it. So in certain cases, it might be like opening a church or operating a class in prison - yeah, they aren't there voluntarily, but they would rather have it than not have it, given that they are imprisoned anyway. I have no way to tell if this is true and that prisoners volunteer for these jobs.

    I hate the "it'll happen anyway" theory because it's worse than the bandwagon fallacy. The bandwagon fallacy is that lots of other people are doing it, so it's probably best to join in. But the "with me or without me" fallacy is that, even though the bandwagon is very likely wrong, you should hop on anyway. It's more or less an admission that you're engaging in bad behavior and refusing to fix it.

    My thinking is to focus on the arrangement with the workers. It doesn't necessarily make the prisoners better off to have one less place where they can get outside work duty. If in fact the prisoners are volunteering to work outside, even for low pay, then it's a choice they'd like to have relative to all their other choices, which are even bleaker. Knowing that they will get nearly zero pay, they are still volunteering for the chance to get fresh air and sun, so that'd mean they are engaging in a trade that betters their situation. But if the prisoners or community service workers don't want to be there, then you're basically a prison guard inflicting punishment and you're also probably profiting from their toil.

    The government is giving you artificially good terms on the deal with the prisoners. They cannot work for more than $X, which is way below minimum wage. That's an artificial intrusion. But those intrusions infest our economy. I got a lot of education for my job and the government artificially excludes from the industry people who don't have all the education and certifications I have. So I benefit, in some way, from the exclusion of others from this industry. I don't consider myself unethical for benefiting from it, because the only way to avoid it is to simply vacate any industry with government intrusion - which would mean total abstention from the economy, because they are all swimming in state intrusions to some extent. So although you are benefiting at the expense of the prisoners, due to unfair government rules, if the prisoners still want the deal even within those unfair conditions then I think it's ethical for you to trade.

    Unlicensed immigrants engage in deals all the time where the price is skewed against them. Financial transactions cost more if they lack the documents to get back accounts. Renting terms are less fair if the lease is illegal. Jobs pay less money and offer few or no benefits because the hiring was unlawful. All of these parties are trading with unlicensed migrants and unfair government rules harm the migrants to the benefit of the other parties. Yet the migrants would prefer these worse deals to no deals at all. If the choice is between lots of low-paying jobs or zero high-paying jobs, obviously the unlicensed migrants would rather have low-paying jobs.

    I don't know that the government will allow you to say "only volunteering prisoner, no involuntary prisoners" so it might be morally cleanest to avoid any involvement with the program. But to the extent that it made prisoners' lives a little better, then I think maybe it would be ethical.

  29. texasjimbo:

    I've worked in correctional education for over 16 years, and there are several things I can assure you of. First, no inmate is ever forced to work. Second, the job you're describing is certainly restricted to the highest class of trusty, and will probably be one of the most coveted jobs among that class of inmate. Most of the work they do will be grunt work, but some may be skilled in trades such as plumbing, carpentry, painting, electrician, etc. Some of the work will be very well done, and some will be poor. There is a real risk that they will use their job to obtain contraband. That environment is also conducive for an escape attempt if one of the workers is so inclined. Make certain what your responsibilities are in regard to those issues. Finally, the presence of inmate labor is probably not conducive to the atmosphere most campers want, and certainly not ones with children. There is no ethical problem. Having nothing to do makes serving time harder; having something to do makes it easier. And it is possible they are being paid.

  30. texasjimbo:

    The net cost of keeping an inmate locked up is universally in excess of any income that can be derived from their labor (by a very large margin). As a general rule, prisons are eager to find more work for inmates because they don't have enough for them to do, and bored inmates are more likely to cause problems.

  31. texasjimbo:

    Commissary prices in Texas prisons are typically higher than Walmart prices, but not awful.

  32. texasjimbo:

    Surprise, surprise, surprise, NL7 using Orwellian language on topics other than immigration. The labor is not stolen. The inmates have been convicted of a crime, and choose to go to a job with or without compensation because doing so benefits them (in terms of gaining privileges, having something to do to pass time, and increasing their chances of being paroled, as well as possibly earning "good time"). The job described here would be considered a plum job by inmates

  33. texasjimbo:

    When inmates do compensated labor, it is SOP to take a portion of their pay for that purpose.

  34. NemesisII:

    Several people have raised the prospect of safety and security issues. It's a safe bet that, if this program has been in place for any length of time, it's set up to successfully eliminate such concerns and prevent such problems, or a Willie Horton story would have destroyed the careers of the politicians who instituted it.
    With that in mind, as long as the prisoners have a choice about participating, it's a good idea. My wife sees job applicants come across her desk every day who are 22 and have never held a job, so it's a safe bet many of these prisoners have never had any exposure to the day to day realities of honest work. This is their only opportunity to learn.

  35. Anders:

    If someone feel compelled to use a euphemisms to talk about it, and it does involve bodily functions, it is probably more ethically dodgy than is apear to be, even when explained without said euphemism. Rule of thumb.

  36. Rosie Moore:

    I haven't read through all of the comments but I would assert that the prisoners gave up their right to "elect" whether or not to do this work when they committed the crime that landed them in prison. On the outside, absolutely, the question of whether they voluntarily choose to do the work is paramount. Inside, not so much. I, for one, would be pleased to have prison laborers do something for a private (or public-private partnership) to offset penal and judicial system costs to US taxpayers.
    My "cronyism" antennae twitch about the vehemence with which they wish you to avoid hiring potentially illegal immigrants. Seems a "convenient" way to get you to agree to accept their prison laborers, which makes me suspicious of kickbacks between the government, legislators and penal system.
    I'll also add that as laws become infinite, we'll all become criminals, potentially working for the state. Argh.....

  37. SineWaveII:

    Maybe this will help. These people are there to pay a debt to society. Are you not part of that society? Are you not owed part of that debt?
    Look into who the people in question really are and what crimes they committed. And then see if you still feel sorry for them.

  38. Random Passenger:

    I once used sailors 'based' out of the brig to do some of the scut work on undermanned warships. It grew to painful when I had to send 1 supervisor for every 2 prisoners. It wasn't worth the hassle of sending people to a day long mandatory class so they could 'supervise' brigrats.

  39. Jim:

    If this were a forum, I'd start a new thread with the question: As an employer who once hired an ex-con, do you think this is a good idea?
    First reply: No

  40. J K Brown:

    When those who recommended the abolition of involuntary servitude on general humanitarian grounds were told that the retention of the system was also in the interest of the enslaved, they knew of nothing to say in rejoinder. For against this objection in favor of slavery there is only one argument that can and did refute all others— namely, that free labor is incomparably more productive than slave labor. The slave has no interest in exerting himself fully. He works only as much and as zealously as is necessary to escape the punishment attaching to failure to perform the minimum. The free worker, on the other hand, knows that the more his labor accomplishes, the more he will be paid. He exerts himself to the full in order to raise his income. One has only to compare the demands placed on the worker by the tending of a modern tractor with the relatively small expenditure of intelligence, strength, and industry that just two generations ago was deemed sufficient for the enthralled ploughmen of Russia. Only free labor can accomplish what must be demanded of the modern industrial worker.

    Mises, Ludwig von (2010-12-10). Liberalism (pp. 21-22). Ludwig von Mises Institute. Kindle Edition.

  41. J K Brown:

    texasjimbo raises a good business question as to what your obligations and liabilities are for having prisoners on site. There is a trend in federal employment law to prevent employers from using past criminal records, but the employer remains subject to civil liability if someone with a known record then commits a crime against customers.

    This is similar to old maritime personal injury cases where an employer was held responsible when they hired a person of known ill-disposition into a crew and that person subsequently assaulted a fellow crew member. The ship operator was held liable for the "workers comp" costs.

  42. Mercury:

    The point is: when a private enterprise performs a government function and the government is in the sole position to increase the flow of raw material to the private enterprise, there is more incentive for foul play and another layer of opacity in over the eyes of the public.
    This is a different situation from say, privately run grade schools where families can opt out/in or move out of town as they see fit (i.e. act freely in the marketplace and respond to/affect supply/demand/price). This is leveraging power that Society reserves for government only: the power to punish lawbreakers, revoke their liberties and throw them in jail.
    Similarly, the greatest gift the political Left ever gave the 'Military Industrial Complex' was to make it politically and socially unfashionable to win wars; tech-intensive conflicts with vague objectives that last a very long time or never end are much more profitable.

  43. Just Sayin:

    Most "community service" workers have a choice of where they want to do their service. I would never think of it as "free" labor, the person gets this opportunity to "work" off part of their "sentence" (be it $$ or time behind bars). I personally feel that the prison system has to feed, clothe, house and have someone watch over the prisoners - we the taxpayers are footing the bill - and I would rather see them earning their keep instead of having to "hire" someone else to do the job.