Is Prison Labor Ethical or Exploitative?

Is Prison Labor Ethical or Exploitative?

A prison sentence, in many cases and countries, carries more than just a record. The consequences offer little in terms of opportunity for a better life. In Mexico, a prison sentence essentially guarantees unemployment upon release. In Peru and Thailand, single mothers are often imprisoned for providing for their families through drug trafficking. Recidivism rates are high, because often a stint in prison is seen as the modern equivalent of a scarlet letter. 

In the United States, however, companies are creating initiatives for the formerly incarcerated, after years of societal pushback and demand for criminal-justice reform. 

In the U.S., prisoners are responsible for the creation of many popular items, as they have been working for subcontractors of major corporations like Starbucks, Nintendo, Boeing and Microsoft. The Corporate Accountability Lab notes prison labor is one of the major incentives against criminal-justice reform, because utilizing the inmate workforce allows for reduced wages and overhead. In some cases, inmates were being paid $7 an hour when, in outside unions, workers were getting roughly $30 an hour for the same job. 

Infamously, Walmart hired prisoners serving time for burglary, escape, battery and drug and gun charges in Wisconsin to help build a distribution center in 2005. The surrounding community was enraged and pushed back, causing Walmart to end the program and include “forced or prison labor will not be tolerated by Walmart” in its company policy. 

The exposure of these practices has caused turmoil in the United States for decades. For example, a California prison sent two men to solitary confinement–into the hole, if you will–in 1997, after telling journalists they were ordered to change garment labels that read “Made in Honduras” to ones that read “Made in the USA.”

The most well-known example, though, came courtesy of Victoria’s Secret and L Brands. In the 1990s, 35 female inmates in a South Carolina prison were hired by Victoria’s Secret subcontractor Third Generation to sew lingerie and leisure wear for the famous lingerie brand and JCPenney. The incarcerated ladies were not alone, though–they were part of a boom that saw companies move to prison labor in order to reduce expenses. And save money, they did. The Prison Policy Initiative published a report in 2017 detailing hourly inmate wage by state. Rates varied from $0.20 to $2.50 an hour, well below the minimum wage in the same states. 

Along with gross profits of more than $500 million, corporations moved to prison labor to maximize net revenue, aided by lower overheads and wages. 

Companies are hiring the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated with the intention of offering them better living conditions and allowing them to get out of a life of poverty and crime. Jorge Cueto and the company he founded, Prison Art, offer their employee base, which consists exclusively of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated artisans, a fair per-piece wage for the leather goods they create; the wage varies depending on the size of the handbag, wallet holder or other accessory. 

Don’t miss our 50 at 50 series: one current or former prisoner published a day until New Year’s Day 2022.

Cueto demands that 50% of the employee’s earned wages are sent to family members or close relatives, to strengthen relationships and reduce recidivism. He pays what he calls liveable wages, and many other companies with similar business models, like Danish clothing company Carcel, do the same. Others, including Ben & Jerry’s and Dave’s Killer Bread, employ formerly incarcerated individuals at fair, livable wages.

It’s easy to run a company with low overhead and employees who are willing to take any amount of money to perform a duty. It’s what caused former Washington state prisoner Daniel Tash to call out prisons and guards across the United States for using inmates to perform “slave labor,” since they are selling marketable products at full price to consumers without disclosing they were made in prisons with cheap labor. 

It could also be argued this type of work does not contribute to positively changing the prison system in any way–that using this cheap labor encourages mass incarceration, as corporations could see privately run prisons as a place to find and exploit workers. 

Is the difference then the wage itself? Are fair wages enough to consider prison labor an ethical practice that enables and empowers the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated? Or are other considerations necessary to consider it an ethical practice? 

Consider Homeboy Electronics Recycling

“In terms of exploitation, I offer that we pay our team a living wage and provide full health benefits to those who are full time,” Director of Administration Lulu Kornspan tells The News Station. “We are an understanding employer who accommodates our team members when they have to take time off and attend court dates, meet with a parole officer or need extra training on emailing, for instance, because they were incarcerated for such a long time and are not up-to-date with those skills.”  

Photo courtesy of Homeboy Electronics Recycling. Photo courtesy of Lulu Kornspan.

Kornspan hopes her business model, one that employs the formerly incarcerated at a liveable, fair wage and with benefits, spreads across corporations. The idea, she notes, is to remove or decrease systemic barriers to enter the workforce, in order to strengthen the economy. 

“This is an amazing and underutilized workforce that is eager to work and do their best,” she says. “We are trying to pave the way for more business by proving that we can be exceptional service providers while employing people with systemic barriers to employment.” 

Homeboy Electronics Recycling and Prison Art are far from the only examples. Across the globe, companies are hiring largely, if not exclusively, formerly incarcerated individuals at fair wages. Carcel created waves in the industry when it arrived on the scene in 2019, receiving a ton of publicity for being open about its prison-labor model of making clothes. 

The brand is Danish, but employs women, mostly young mothers, incarcerated in prisons in Thailand and Peru who are serving time for poverty-related, non-violent crimes. The company aims to be fully transparent about its social and environmental impact. 

“Where social entrepreneurship meets fashion, there’s room for pioneers,” founder Veronica D’Souza told Forbes in 2019. “It’s a dream for us to create a model that’s impactful socially and can be an example. Hopefully big corporations will see that there’s a market for fashion that solves social problems.”

Ovenly, an award-winning, New York City-based bakery, has a similar program. The socially responsible bakery, run by Agatha Kulaga, employs a large number of ex-prisoners, who Kulaga and the Ovenly staff train to work in a bakery environment, while offering compassionate leave and scheduling to accommodate for things like parole hearings and sudden emergencies. Kulaga and co-founder Erin Patinkin have experience with and passion for social justice, and include ethical wages, training and staff accommodations as part of their workplace standard. 

Agatha Kulaga of Ovenly. Photo courtesy of Erica Schroeder

“Some of our best employees have been people that have never worked in food, that were incarcerated before they came to Ovenly,” Kulaga tells The News Station. 

Ovenly worked with Getting Out and Staying Out to create an internship program, and now collaborates with several non-profits to hire formerly incarcerated people and those from other marginalized communities. 

“We were very intentional about the decisions that we made,” Kulaga says. “Our intent was to build a business that we can feel proud of and that we can also shape to be the type of business that can make some sort of positive change.” 

Apparently, models like these inspired giants across industries to follow suit. In 2019, entrepreneur and music mogul Jay-Z, birth name Shawn Carter, announced his new role as the chief brand strategist for legal marijuana company Caliva. He partnered with the California-based company with the aim of redirecting efforts to promote and shape social justice surrounding cannabis-related incarceration. His work includes giving more jobs in the industry to those who served time for marijuana-related offenses. He is now working to release a fan who received a 20-year sentence for conspiring to possess with the intent to distribute more than one ton of marijuana. The fan, 55-year-old Valon Vailes, has been in prison since 2007 and reached out to the rapper by letter. 

Tech company Slack, whose messenger service is popular with businesses, launched an initiative called Next Chapter, aimed to help ex-prisoners find work and change the perceptions around incarceration. Slack worked with The Last Mile, a program within a handful of prisons across the United States that teaches incarcerated people how to build websites and apps, as well as other foundations. The program created a year-long apprenticeship to train and mentor three graduates of The Last Mile, which boasts a 0% recidivism rate. The first three people to successfully complete the program became full-time Slack employees. 

Training seems to be an important part of the ethics conversation, too, adding to the common threads of fair wages, time off for personal matters and benefits. The training component is something Homeboy Electronics Recycling implemented, too. 

“A good portion of our staff is formerly incarcerated, but an even larger portion of our staff falls into the broader category of having experienced ‘systemic barriers to work,’ which may include former incarceration, gang involvement, mental-health issues, disabilities and homelessness,” Kornspan says. “We typically staff through the Homeboy Industries trainee program, where individuals will come work with us as interns while they are still going through the program and working on their healing as well as legal issues. After they have graduated from the 18-month program we will often hire them if the job is a good fit for them.”  

Prison labor seems to walk a fine line between ethical and exploitative, between change-making and penny-pinching, between helpful and harmful. The distinction between a positive and negative experience appears to depend on the nature of the work. Work-life balance, fair wages, benefits and proper training are the common through-line for companies deemed positive for the prison workforce. Equal opportunity for the marginalized, many business owners agree, is key. 

“We never thought about starting a business just to make money. We were also emotionally invested in it,” Kulaga says. “A big piece of that is really this idea of intentional hiring practices, where we want to be able to create opportunities for people that have otherwise been denied them. For me, it’s really just about creating quality jobs for all people.”

Erica is a freelance writer and has published her work in Rolling Stone, Deadspin, LitHub and more. She graduated from New York University’s journalism school with her Master’s degree, specializing in magazine writing. She splits her time between New York and Toronto, Canada.

Erica is a freelance writer and has published her work in Rolling Stone, Deadspin, LitHub and more. She graduated from New York University’s journalism school with her Master’s degree, specializing in magazine writing. She splits her time between New York and Toronto, Canada.

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