How can felons be rehabilitated when prison labor is good for big business?

Until the use of prison labor is banned, many stakeholders will be incentivized to prevent felons from being rehabilitated.

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  • The Thirteenth amendment prohibits slavery in the U.S. except as punishment for a crime.
  • A considerable number of public institutions, private companies, and individuals benefit from prison labor.
  • Is true prison reform possible when some many stand to gain from this legalized form of slavery?


The Thirteenth Amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865, abolishing the practice of slavery in the U.S. — for the most part. In fact, what the amendment really served to do was to sweep slavery under the rug. Section I of the amendment reads, "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime for which the person has been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States or any place subject to its jurisdiction."

That quick statement, "except as punishment for a crime," has simply changed the setting where slavery occurs.

Who stands to gain from prison labor?

Sixty-one percent of people in prison have jobs, which pay on average about 63 cents per hour. This is already de facto slavery, but in Texas, Georgia, Arkansas, and Alabama, prisoners are offered no wage whatsoever. A common counter argument is that prisoners are free to choose to work or not, unlike actual slaves.

First, this is not true for every state. Many states, such as Arizona, require all able-bodied prisoners to work. Second, this ignores the dynamics of prisons that force most prisoners to work. Unless they are receiving money from the outside, prisoners need to work to supplement their poor diets, to talk to their families, and to pay for legal fees.

In an interview with Big Think, former inmate Shaka Senghor explains how this system works:

"When I was in prison, I worked for $0.17 an hour; that was my starting rate working in the kitchen. But there are also big corporations who invest in prison labor because they can get this labor for $1.50 an hour. … Everything in prison has inflated costs. It costs us — inside prison, when I was inside — anywhere between $3 and $15 for a 15-minute phone call. We don't have to pay that out here in free society. . . . And so there are so many ways that the prison is exploited: the cheap labor, the cost of services and goods, and it's a model that, sadly and unfortunately, has affected a large segment of our society."

Private companies earn money off of prison labor in a variety of ways. First, there's the Federal Prison Industries, a corporation owned by the U.S. government more commonly referred to as UNICOR. According to UNICOR's most recent (as of 2019) annual report, the corporation made roughly $500 million in net sales in 2018.

The majority of these sales were to other government agencies, but UNICOR also sells to private entities. In fact, UNICOR encourages private entities to purchase services ranging from electronics assembly, textile manufacturing, metal fabrication, agricultural work, and others. Products bought from UNICOR are also eligible for the "Made in America" tag — though, this fails to mention that these products are made from slave labor.

Many private companies also contract prison labor. For instance, Whole Foods has used prison labor to farm tilapia and produce goat cheese, McDonald's has used prison labor to sew their uniforms, and AT&T used prisoners in a call center.

In addition, you may own shares in companies directly supporting prison labor, particularly those of CoreCivic and the GEO Group. These two private prison companies are publicly traded, and their shares can be found in the index funds and ETFs of many people's portfolios, even without their knowledge. Vanguard, Blackrock, and Fidelity are the biggest investors.

Can we reduce recidivism with these incentives in place?

If the federal government, private companies, and individual citizens of the U.S. are benefitting from prison labor, what incentive is there to rehabilitate prisoners? U.S. recidivism rates are exceptionally high: 68 percent of ex-felons were re-arrested within three years, 79 percent within six years, and 83 percent within nine years.

Few businesses are willing to hire former convicts, exacerbating the difficulties of their re-entry into society. Many landlords, too, are unwilling to lease to felons. As a result, the formerly incarcerated are 10 times more likely than the general population to become homeless. The system may not have been deliberately designed encourage recidivism — but that doesn't change the fact that many people benefit from a large and consistent prison population.

Support for felons exiting prison has been slim, but new developments are encouraging. Former U.S. President Barack Obama introduced a pilot program called the Second Chance Pell Grant that offered Pell grants to incarcerated students. Since obtaining an education is widely recognized as one of the best ways to avoid recidivism, this could be a powerful tool to keep people out of prison.

Congress is currently considering the Restoring Educating and Learning (REAL) Act, which would take this grant out of the pilot phase, though it appears to have little chance of being enacted into law.

President Donald Trump has also signed the First Step Act into law, which reduces mandatory minimums and works against recidivism by improving residential re-entry centers (i.e., halfway houses), incentivizes prisoners to participate in programs, and supplies vocational training among other features.

But, as its name implies, the First Step Act is just one of many urgently needed reforms. Until our society changes its attitude regarding the humanity of felons, our criminal justice institutions will continue to be incentivized to give ex-convicts as many opportunities to return to prison as possible.

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It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

Image source: Shashank Sahay/unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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