Prison Reform and Unemployment in America

Chances are whatever you’re reading this on someone, who many would refer to as a slave, had a key role in producing it. Whether its on Microsoft software, anything bought from Walmart, or even the paper you use in your printer, it would have never made it into your hands if it weren’t for penal labor. Prisons are meant to rehabilitate the inmates who go through the system. However, where there’s a chance to help convicts become more productive members of society, companies see a chance to save billions.

This causes higher crime rates, higher prison populations, and higher rates of criminals to reoffend.

According to penal labor is defined as: “labor that is forced upon prison inmates.” The estimated turn over from prisons is $74 billion. That’s just from the United States.

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On top of that prisoners work for on average nationally 63 cents an hour. The 13th amendment states “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” Therefore under the constitution penal labor is very legal. Shouldn’t the NLRA (Nation Labor Regulations Act) protect employees from forced labor? Well it does. However, according to the Atlantic “courts have ruled that the relationship between the penitentiary and the inmate worker is not primarily economic; thus, the worker is not protected under the statutes.” So prisoners are technically not employees of the companies they are providing services for. The majority of inmates in state prisons in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Texas are not even being paid at all.

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This brings up a lot of questions. Are prisons meant to punish or rehabilitate? How can we rehabilitate while keeping prison costs down? Is the U.S. prison system archaic strategies doing more bad than good?

It’s not uncommon for inmates to receive a bill for their stay in prison. This in its self puts released inmates in debt. According to CNN 10 million people owe more than $50 billion from these charges. Independent quoted David Dickinson’s, an economist for Labor Learning Institute for Public Policy Research, academic study in finding that the rise in crime in the last 20 years is closely related to the rise in unemployment. If unemployment levels are closely related to crime levels then why should inmates be charged for their stay? White House Senior Advisor for the Obama Administration, Valerie Jarret, reported to Business Insider that the U.S. spends $80 billion a year. It’s no secret that the prison system puts a dent in tax payers wallets, especially when the U.S. has the highest population of inmates in the world.

Recidivism is a term used when a criminal reoffends and returns to prison and the U.S. has one of the highest recidivism rates at 76.6%. Where the United States lacks in the justice system, Norway excels. Norway has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world at just 20%. Why is that? Norway practices restorative justice, which doesn’t just view the crimes as a violation of the law, but also recognizes the damage done to the victims and the community. What sets restorative justice apart from other techniques, in terms of recidivism rates, is recognizing the damage done to the offender. It’s weird to think that they look at the impact on the offender. American society usually thinks that the offender should be punished and suffer for their crimes; that the offender deserves no sympathy. It’s clear Norway agrees that offenders do not deserve sympathy. Norway’s justice system understands that the offender needs empathy. Instead of throwing the offender in a cell with metal bars and forcing them to adjust to prison life, Norway tries to maintain a normal, humane, and friendly environment in their prisons. While being interviewed by the Guardian, Arne Wilson, a Clinical Psychologist, points out a key problem in American prisons: “If we treat people like animals when they are in prison they are likely to behave like animals.”

Wilson then explains that in Norway’s prisons they pay attention to inmates as humans, not animals. Business Insider noted that a report on recidivism by the U.S. Department of Justice shows that strict incarceration increases an offenders chance of recidivism. The same report also stated that ‘cognitive-behavioral programs rooted in social learning theory’ based prisons have a lower recidivism rate. Lastly, Norway has a maximum sentence of 21 years, unlike in America there is no maximum sentence. This doesn’t mean dangerous criminals can be released 21 years later free to do what they want. It means that after 21 years the offender will be evaluated and may be released if determined that they have been rehabilitated. If the offender is determined to have not successfully been rehabilitated then an additional five years is added to their sentence. After the extra five years they will be evaluated again and either released or given another five years.

It’s clear that the American prison system is not just counterproductive but damaging to our communities, economy, and the very future of the nation. With inmates working countless hours for little pay, receiving no job experience and no incentive for education, and being treating like animals, it’s obvious why America is falling behind other countries in so many ways. America is among the highest for crime rates, recidivism rates, and increasing population below the poverty line. Released inmates have little to zero chance for obtaining a secure job. On top of this there is a plethora of convicts who are being charged for their stay in prison, vaulting them further into poverty. With no jobs, high debt, and no social skills outside of a cell, the only way to survive is what put them in this very mess in the first place. Allowing prisoners to interact with the community, giving inmates a humane lifestyle, making prisoners feel like humans, and rehabilitating them so they can actually survive out of prison, will drastically drop crime rates along with recidivism rates. Prisoners are not slaves, they are not animals, they are what we treat them as.

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Prison Reform and Unemployment in America. (2022, May 05). Retrieved from

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