Is It Immoral to Force Prisoners to Work?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Spotlighting the Atlantic documentary on Angola prison, Whitney Benns made the very provocative argument last week that its work program is tantamount to slavery:

Those troubling opening scenes of the documentary offer visual proof of a truth that America has worked hard to ignore: In a sense, slavery never ended at Angola; it was reinvented. … [I]nmates at Angola, once cleared by the prison doctor, can be forced to work under threat of punishment as severe as solitary confinement. Legally, this labor may be totally uncompensated; more typically inmates are paid meagerly—as little as two cents per hour—for their full-time work in the fields, manufacturing warehouses, or kitchens. How is this legal? Didn’t the Thirteenth Amendment abolish all forms of slavery and involuntary servitude in this country?

Benns goes on to insist that “Angola is not the exception; it is the rule.” But a reader who used to work in a Texas prison, Matthew Lewis, challenges that narrative:

Firstly, I want to be clear: Being a white male, I can never fully understand the emotional effect a person of color feels when they when they see a field of nothing but black men working a field while chained with armed men in uniform patrolling them on horseback when shotguns. I fully acknowledge that systemic racism occurs and has occurred for centuries.

With that being said, the forcing of offenders in America’s prisons is done in an effort to promote a positive change in offender behavior.

I will use Texas as an example, since I worked for TDCJ-CID. Texas has one of the largest prison populations in the U.S. All offenders in the general population are given a security class based on their in-prison disciplinary record, ranging from G1 (Trustee) to G5 (High Security). Every offender is assigned a job, with his individual abilities, medical history, etc, taken into account.

Every offender is given a job for multiple reasons. The main one is to have the offenders responsible for maintaining their living area and related programs. Janitors keep the common areas clean and sanitized, kitchen staff make the meals that feed everyone, etc. Specialized jobs are offered as well; Someone with plumping or electrical experience are assigned to building maintenance. Offenders even drive the trucks that transfer supplies from unit to unit. Jobs that don’t directly support the offender population (i.e call center work, raising cattle for sale) support operational costs and, at the unit level, assist in improving funding to rehabilitative and training programs.

Also, offenders come a range of different backgrounds. Some people have never had a daily job they had to report to, so they are given important life skills such as getting up, getting ready, and getting to work on time, reporting to superiors, and working as a team towards accomplishing a goal. These are life skills needed to function after re-entry into society.

The assignment of jobs parallels the security designations given. Higher security offenders are given less desirable jobs; G5s at the unit I worked were exclusively assigned to the Hoe Squad (outside field work). This is punitive in nature; Offenders who do not adhere to institutional rules are raised to a higher security level, which involves are harder job. Thus it promotes one of the agency’s goals by promoting a positive change in offender behavior.

Certain jobs, due to their dangerous nature, are volunteer-only as well—for example, working with the kennel to train the dogs used for tracking escapees. A prison dress up in a padded suit and the dogs track and bring him down. He also assists in caring for the dogs, which is the main appeal of it. But offenders will never be forced to do this job.

It’s easy to observe how vital offenders are to maintain their work area when you’re working there. If a unit goes on lockdown, it’s miserable. Work crews stop making food, so staff make sandwiches and have to serve them door-to-door. Janitors aren’t cleaning, so officers have to sweep the living area. Offenders are also more volatile, both verbally and physically, from being in a cell all day.

I feel that the system in place is superior to voluntary work at minimum wage. If an offender made minimum wage at 40-45 hours a week (the usual week), and was then billed for his room, board, etc, he would come out with a deficit while not having the advantage of learning necessary skills for living in the “free world.”

I understand the emotional reaction to seeing one hundred men of color forcibly working a field on lands that used to have men and women of color doing the same kind of work under the yolk of slavery, but there is a logical reason for why the system is like this.

What do you think of Benns’s piece or the arguments made by our reader? Email