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Should prisons be allowed to use inmates for cheap labor?

If prisoners don’t get a regular minimum wage anyway, they may as well become productive in a real trade that benefits them and society. Prison shouldn’t be about deprivation of potential; it should be a learning period toward real reform.
If prisoners don’t get a regular minimum wage anyway, they may as well become productive in a real trade that benefits them and society. Prison shouldn’t be about deprivation of potential; it should be a learning period toward real reform.
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Original bids to prepare Sochi, Russia, for the 2014 Winter Olympics were estimated at $8.8 billion. Actual development costs ballooned to $42 billion, making those Winter Games the most expensive in history. So, in preparation for the 2018 World Cup, Russian leaders are looking to cut costs by using prisoner labor.

One could argue that using prisoners to build facilities is just exploitation of inmates who have no say in the matter. But any kind of work program should prove beneficial for incarcerated individuals.

Julie Stasch, president of the MacArthur Foundation, believes that America spends far too much to jail people without making actual improvements to society. That’s why her foundation offers grants to jail systems in an effort to help inmates rehabilitate. Reformed persons can then be returned to society as better men and women than they were before.

America faces an epidemic when it comes to prisons at the federal, state and county levels. A February report from the Vera Institute of Justice revealed that “the number of annual admissions nearly doubled, from 6 million in 1983 to 11.7 million in 2013.”

Cutting back on those numbers means considering ways to help prisoners to reform. Russia’s unorthodox idea might be one such approach, pending more answers regarding public and prisoner security.

Aleksandr Khinshtein, who drafted the bill that would allow for the labor in question, suggested ways to cut costs could even include allowing prisoners to stay in guarded hostels while on the job. This would undoubtedly ruffle some of the locals. On the other hand, protecting prisoners should be a high priority as well. Russia should learn from Qatar, which has had its share of human rights scandals in preparation of hosting the 2022 World Cup, and hold Vladimir Putin and other leaders responsible for protecting prisoners’ rights.

When given the opportunity, it seems many prisoners will do great things with a second chance. A New Republic column tells the story of Bob Sloan, a former prisoner who readjusted to life beyond the slammer thanks to PRIDE, a prison industries company that gave him work and an education while incarcerated. During his 10-year sentence, Sloan worked as a draughtsman through PRIDE, was able to pay off his required $10,000 restitution for his crime, earned an architectural degree and was able to reenter society with a solid plan for the future.

Do the math: It costs about $29,000 a year to incarcerate the average inmate in America. Close to 2.5 million people are currently behind bars. A 2007 report found only 18 percent of prisoners in federal prisons were involved in work programs, and of those few who work, maximum wage is $1.15 an hour, with the lower end at 25 cents. Some states, like Texas and Missouri, don’t offer prisoners any kind of compensation for their work. Prisoners in Utah are compensated at a minimum of 40 cents per hour.

As expensive as it is to house prisoners, imagine using this labor option to alleviate pressure on state budgets. We’re not talking about having prisoners pound rocks needlessly in the yard. A better example: In a California men’s facility, inmates fight wildfires next to professional firefighters; the program boasts a high rate of successful reform.

If prisoners don’t get a regular minimum wage anyway, they may as well become productive in a real trade that benefits them and society. Prison shouldn’t be about deprivation of potential; it should be a learning period toward real reform.