What is Prison Labor?

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  • Written By: Tara Barnett
  • Edited By: Jacob Harkins
  • Last Modified Date: 16 January 2020
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Prison labor is work done by people who have been imprisoned for a crime. This practice is common in many countries, but the type of labor performed and its intended effect on the inmates often varies. For many facilities, prison labor is used to provide inmates with stimulating activities, valuable job skills, and possible way of earning money. This labor can be used explicitly as a way to punish inmates or to help complete projects that are a benefit to the community or correctional facility.

It was once common in many areas for prisoners to be put to somewhat meaningless work as a direct form of punishment. Going through the motions of labor was intended to be physically grueling and mentally deadening. Common tasks included grinding grain, pushing mills, and breaking rocks. While all of these tasks could be slightly useful, they were almost always assigned for specific punitive capabilities.

In modern prisons where labor is permitted, it is much more common for prisoners to be put to productive work. Wasting inmate effort on tasks that could be done better by machine is not as economical as putting prisoners to work in ways that benefit the prison. A large number of prisons do not pay inmates and consider work to be mandatory. Some prisons do pay the inmates, and many offer this labor as an option for those who in good standing to get out of their cells.


Almost any kind of labor can be performed by inmates, but prisons usually only allow prisoners to work on projects that cannot result in dangerous activities and that do not involve contact with the outside world. For instance, the production of desks, license plates, or components of larger items are all common uses of prison labor. Some prisons allow inmates to work a phone job, but generally with the understanding that the inmate must not reveal his or her location. There are also often jobs for inmates that serve the prison itself, such as working in the laundry room or as a cook. Special inmates may find themselves with more desirable jobs, such as working as the prison librarian.

There are some concerns about the rights of inmates who work at hard labor camps and arguments that this labor is little more than legalized slavery. Consumers who are concerned about the moral impact of the products they buy must be very careful not to purchase those made by prisoners interned at hard labor camps, because unlike more moderate low cost prison labor, these jobs clearly constitute human rights violations.


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Post 3

@pastanaga - I really think though that people need to stop thinking about prisons emotionally and start thinking practically. There are a lot of people who think that prisoners shouldn't be allowed to work, that that should be considered a privileged.

But, honestly if they are allowed to work and learn a skill and are guided into jobs when they get back into the workplace they won't re-offend. And there are so many people in the prisons right now, we have to do something to make sure they get out of there. Getting revenge shouldn't be our priority, and neither should getting our money's worth. Making sure that crime rates go down is what we should be focusing on and letting them do respectable work is one of the best ways to do that.

Post 2

@croydon - Quite frankly, I don't care whether the prisoners are getting pride out of their work. I think they should be made to work in order to pay for their upkeep, or possibly to put money towards reparations for whatever crime they have committed. It costs hundreds of dollars a week to keep each prisoner and that money has to come from somewhere.

I think another solution is to stop putting people in prison for minor offenses like drug use. Some kid making a dumb mistake should be given community service, rather than being put into a forced vacation that's going to cost me and him for the rest of his life.

Post 1

It's been shown several times that prisons that allow the inmates to do productive work where they learn a skill generally have a much lower re-offending rate than those in which the prisoners just sit around.

This is even better if the prisoners are able to make working contacts while they are doing their job, as often they will reoffend because they don't feel like they have any other way to feed themselves or their family.

Plus, it's really something to be able to be proud of what you do. I think a lot of people in prison have never had the chance to experience that and being given that chance allows them to realize what the difference is and why they should change their lives.

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