Cazzie Reyes is a Researcher for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center's Anti-Trafficking Programs. She graduated from Bradley University with a Bachelor's degree in International Studies and a minor in Women's Studies.
Below is a summary of mainstream arguments for or against the use of prison labor.
Types of work programs vary, and some involve training in computer coding, skilled manufacturing and auto repair which could help prepare prisoners for jobs after release.
Gina Honeycutt, Executive Director of the National Correction Industries Association, points out that these work programs give prisoners responsibilities and expectations. For example, inmates learn how to work within a unit and are able to develop communication skills.
The California Prison Industry (CALPIA) found that participants in the CALPIA program were less likely to reoffend or return to prison.
Jelena Supica, an inmate in California’s firefighter program, says, "It is controversial. You could look at it that way, as being exploited for labor. But you've got to look at it as the glass half full, because I was a lost little girl before I came here. This program is helping us to become helpful members of society. It's beautiful. If anything, they should open more camps like these."
The Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program pays the minimum wage and “generates products and services that enable inmates to make a contribution to society, help offset the cost of their incarceration, compensate crime victims and support their families.”
Indeed, other than the issue of rights, discussion on the use of prison labor tends to center on the profitability of the whole system.
“We’ve farmed out so many correctional services to private corporations that criminal justice is no longer a government function.” -Chandra Bozelko
Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News and executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center, states, "This is a prime example of how prison slavery undermines salaries and wages for non-prisoners. If they weren't having the prisoners do the work for whatever pittance they pay them, they would be paying non-prisoners 15-20 dollars an hour plus benefits."
In the Louisiana State Penitentiary, once cleared by medical staff, inmates are required to work. There are very few exceptions, and those who refuse might be placed in solitary confinement, lose earned recreation time or risk losing family visitation privileges.
From acquiring severe burns to losing body parts, there are plenty of documented injuries in prison work programs.
In prison, typical wages range from nothing at all to $0.23-$1.15/hour. There are no unions, safety regulations, pension, social security, sick leave, overtime pay or other benefits and protections. Courts, in the past, have ruled that inmates are not protected by labor laws.
The movie "Ghost Fleet," which follows the story of enslaved fishermen in east Asia, opens in select theaters June 7th.
Noy Thrupkaew is a global journalist that reports on human trafficking. Watch her TED talk that shares another perspective on the underlying issues that enable human trafficking.