As long as prisons exist, I've generally been a fan of the idea behind work release programs like the one in the Maine State Prison system, where incarcerated people learn skills like woodworking that will help them get jobs upon release. Or at least, it's the least worst work-related prison program I've come across. Most people who spend time in prison are usually driven there through a series of events complicated by poverty, so it makes sense to provide them with rehabilitative opportunities that they can keep them from experiencing the same depths of desperation after they've served their sentences.
That being said, there is nothing practical about this:
among the things we (the people of Massachusetts) make state prisoner-laborers produce in our depraved state prison labor system pic.twitter.com/jMx66uXRVF
— Bill Humphrey (@BillHumphreyMA) July 19, 2020
Bill Humphrey is a city councillor in Newton, Massachusetts, and also hosts a podcast called Arsenal for Democracy. He came across this jarring tidbit while researching for a recent podcast episode on prison labor.
According to the Daily Hampshire Gazette:
More than 500 people participate in MassCor [the Massachusetts Department of Corrections production company], and compensation ranges between $.85 and 1.45 an hour. Around the country, in 2017, wages for inmates in state-owned businesses like MassCor averaged between $.33 and $1.41 per hour, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a research nonprofit based in Easthampton that focuses on mass incarceration and advocates for reform.
I received a cutting board from the Maine State Prison Showroom as a wedding gift. That, to me, makes sense! It's practical; it's functional. The incarcerated Mainers who produce these goods also get to design them, and they're paid up to $3 an hour — which is shitty, but remarkably generous in comparison to most of the gruelling slave labor that goes on throughout the US prison system.
I do not believe that any incarcerated Masshole wants to embroider a "Blue Lives Matter" flag. Not to mention that it's kind of weird to force incarcerated people to not only make merchandise celebrating the people who imprisoned them, but also doing so through a state-sponsored program that violates US Flag Code.
Unlike the Maine State Prison Showroom, MassCor doesn't even keep any data about the success of its program. Do people actually use the skills to find jobs? Do they end up back in prison? It's not clear, because the people in charge don't care about the results. They care about the cheap labor.
You can learn more about our nation's messed up prison labor practices in this episode of Arsenal For Democracy.
Image: Public domain via NeedPix