As wildfires rage across northern California, prison chain gangs worked 72 hours straight for little or no pay as untrained firefighters facing death daily on the front lines.
California’s recent use of inmate chain gangs to fight their fires as reported by the New York Times, is also emblematic of something more deadly: the use of state prison chain gangs and the various states’ dependence on free inmate labor.
Inmate labor in the form of prison chain gangs in most states goes back to the mid-19th century and the earliest official state prison ships. In 1852, prisoners slept on deck at night and spent their days working on prison chain gangs. By 1923, most state prison chain gangs were made up of prison inmates who worked on highway construction, and were receiving wages, albeit low wages, for their labor. During World War II, most states turned their prisons into factories for the military industry and moved their inmate chain gangs into temporary camps in support of the Civilian Conservation Corps, a public work-relief program created during the Depression. There they built roads, harvested crops and repaired infrastructure.
Since the 1940s, most states have depended heavily on the cheap labor of inmate chain gangs to run their work programs. But just as meaningful prison reform threatens to take hold across the country and states are being forced to look at ways to cut back their once unconstitutionally overcrowded prison populations the reintroduction of state prison chain gangs has become the favored political solution of choice. This leaves many political state officials in a peculiar position — will prison reforms drain their state prisons of their cheap inmate labor force, just when these states have come to need it most?
The reintroduction of state prison inmate chain gangs is an especially good deal now for the states, which will save a considerable amount of money by capitalizing on their cheap prison labor instead of having to hire more state workers. Any way you cut it, the states and their taxpayers benefit from their inmates’ cheap labor.
It’s an advantage that the states aren’t keen on losing at this time. Since 2014, most states have filed court challenges arguing that any proposed reforms of their parole programs would drastically undercut the appeal of their state chain gangs, which incentivizes participation by offering inmates twice as many credits toward early release as they would earn inside prison walls. The most used state program, known as 2–1 credits, was ordered to be expanded by a federal court in February of 2014. But attorneys for most states have argued that such a reform would “severely impact their system of work programs”— even if such a stance resulted in “evoking images of public wide use of cheap prison labor and slavery.
Most state officials — perhaps predictably —publicly sell their various work programs in a positive aspect noting that their work programs offer inmates a chance to amass a larger monetary nest egg for when they’re released than any other prison job, that it allows them a greater — though still severely limited — amount of freedom, because their chain gangs are relatively open compared to the walls of a prison. In a number of states these kinds of prison reforms have shifted more inmates from state prisons to county jails — and the need for inmate chain gangs has only increased — most state operated chain gangs now have begun looking to county jails to fill their chain gangs. In fact many states have already negotiated legal contracts with their counties to provide jail inmates if they need them to fill state wide chain gangs.
Historically prison chain gangs were publicly justified as having the ‘rehabilitative values of – paying the community back a little bit – offering marginal financial incentives to inmates and – to speed up their release from prison back into the community for their time spent on the chain gang at a higher rate than if they were in prison. These chain gangs were also supposed to help lower the likelihood that inmates would commit another crime and be returned to prison. However, not a single study of the prison system since the original implementation of their use has proven that such rehabilitative outcomes have ever been realized. In 1999, in a study funded by the Open Society Institute, five prominent economists argued for basic worker rights, including minimum wages, for inmates. Those standards have never been implemented, however.
Most of the inmates manning these prison chain gangs are serving prison terms because of drug- or alcohol-related crimes, nonviolent convictions that almost all states classify as low-level risks to their communities. So, maybe one important question to ask concerning the need for prison chain gangs is, if these inmates are safe to be out and about working in our communities, maybe they didn’t need to be in prison in the first place.
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