Given the scope and scale of prison labor in the modern era, one could reasonably expect some degree of compliance with modern labor standards. However, despite the hard-won protections secured by the labor movement over the past 100 years, incarcerated workers do not enjoy most of these protections.
Employment law makes the status of the worker as an “employee” a critical distinction. If you are an employee, you get protections; if not, you don’t. Courts look to the character of the relationship between the parties and aim to assess, first, whether the employer has sufficient control over the work conditions and, second, whether the relationship is primarily of an economic character.
Incarcerated workers are not expressly excluded from the definition of employee in workers’ protection statutes like the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) or the National Labor Relations Act. However, in the cases where incarcerated workers have sued their prison-employers to enforce minimum wage laws or the FLSA, 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. By judging the relationship between prisons and incarcerated workers to be of a primarily social or penological nature, the courts have placed wage and working condition protections out of reach for incarcerated workers.
Incarcerated persons or, more specifically, the “duly convicted,” lack a constitutional right to be free of forced servitude. Further, this forced labor is not checked by many of the protections enjoyed by workers laboring in the exact same jobs on the other side of the 20-foot barbed-wire electric fence.
* * *
Angola for Life raises questions about the potential rehabilitative nature of prison labor. Work, warden Cain posits, is an important part of the rehabilitative process. Prison labor provides a way to pay society back for the costs of incarceration, as well as a pathway to correct deviant behavior and possibly find personal redemption.
Meaningful work helps cultivate self-esteem, self worth, and the sense that one’s existence on this Earth matters. Yet, while some form of work for the incarcerated may be important, the current form is troubling. These workers are vulnerable to the kind of workplace exploitation that America has otherwise deemed inhumane.
Another justification for compulsory prison labor comes from a fairness concern. Why should prisoners sit with idle hands when the rest of us must work to put a roof over our heads and food in our bellies? Perhaps the low-to-no wages paid to incarcerated workers are a form of pay garnishment, a sort of compensation for the costs of room and board?
Yet those costs are not fairly calculated. The American criminal-justice system is rife with fees that shift the financial burden of incarceration to the charged and convicted and their families. Like the “company store” in isolated mining towns which overcharged workers of old, prisoners are left open to similar forms of exploitation.