Shoveling a Path Out of Prison

If states want to dig themselves out from the difficulties of mass incarceration, they can begin by creating employment programs for newly released inmates.

Brian Snyder/Reuters

In Boston this winter, jail inmates have been shoveling out fire hydrants, streets, and buried train lines in the face of historic snow. Clearly, Massachusetts needs the help. But instead of using current inmates for the task, Boston would be better served to employ newly released inmates desperate for cash. It’s just one example of how public officials tend to focus on those currently behind bars, instead of placing their emphasis on reintegrating former prisoners into society.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has actually praised the use of current inmates as “an important component to successful re-entry.” There’s no question that it’s a cheap solution. After all, the median wage in state prisons is 20 cents per hour. Those who have already paid their time, by contrast, would need to be paid the prevailing wage. And the union workers performing the same tasks are paid $30 an hour.

It’s not hard to understand why officials struggling to clear streets and tracks have turned to time-honored solutions. Inmates—and the National Guard and union workers for that matter—provide state authorities with a (literally, in the case of inmates) captive workforce to call upon the instant it’s needed. Officials don't want to be recruiting workers during an emergency. And the newly released, for their part, need the stability of regular work; they can't afford to wait around and hope for a natural disaster.

Fortunately, there is a better way to make work programs like emergency snow-shoveling beneficial for all.

How can states do this?

A regular government jobs program for formerly incarcerated people could play a valuable role in maintaining public areas and infrastructure while assisting the transition from the prison to the community. Such a program would also provide a readily available workforce that could respond in moments of catastrophe.

Better yet, extending the program to provide real jobs to those who are about to be released would help them build a nest-egg to transition back into society. Pay all these workers the prevailing wage, and they will be able to afford rent and other necessities for successful reentry. And set up a payment plan so that former prisoners can pay back their debts, such as fines owed to the courts, once they are back up on their feet.

Such a payment plan for fees and fines would represent a big upgrade over the usual work-release programs. Financial obligations are usually deducted from the paycheck up front, and debt can follow formerly incarcerated people around for years. This erodes their incentive to work, makes crime more tempting, and absorbs money that might otherwise procure stable housing and other basic necessities.

People who have been incarcerated—mostly minority men with low-incomes and little schooling—continue to pay a price long after they have left prison. They often enter prison with close to nothing and return to society with little money to get established after incarceration.

Compounding the problem, they also face significant barriers to finding employment upon release.

According to the American Bar Association, people who serve their time and are released from prison in Massachusetts must contend with 789 state and 1,157 federal collateral consequences of criminal conviction. (In many other states, it's even worse; in Texas, for example, there are 1,544.)  These include bans from public housing and suspended drivers’ licenses that prevent a normal life, and make it hard to seek jobs or raise children. While some of these restrictions may serve the public interest, others obstruct reintegration into society.

Many former prisoners can’t support families or afford housing, and can’t shell out enough money to pay the criminal justice system’s numerous fees and fines. In a vicious cycle, some of these men and women are sent back to jail when they fail to pay. Given all of this, it’s not surprising that almost 70 percent of those released will get re-arrested.

Worse yet, the consequences of incarceration extend far beyond the person imprisoned. The families and the children of those who go to prison also suffer from the negative financial effects of incarceration. This often leads to eviction of families from their homes. Matt Desmond of Harvard University calls these the “twin destructive forces” of incarceration and eviction. In fact, according research done by Christopher Wildeman of Cornell University and Sara Wakefield of Rutgers University, paternal incarceration more than doubles the risk of homelessness for African American children and increases the chances that these kids will be poor and commit crimes themselves.

This cycle ensnares taxpayers, who end up footing larger bills for social programs and pay for the exorbitant cost of incarceration.

For those reasons, offering much-needed public maintenance jobs to recently released prisoners and those about to be released is a wise investment. States would gain a steady workforce to maintain and upgrade infrastructure, and the flexibility to deploy it in response to catastrophic events like blizzards. These funds should be put into a new “reentry account” to help them pay for rent and basic necessities upon release, and, once they are stable, their debts to the government and others.

With sound analysis, Massachusetts and other states could find money to fund these accounts. The predicted long-term cost savings, and economic need of getting crucial public investments like the trains up and running in an emergency like we have seen in Boston, make this a sound investment.

In the end, this about more than just fair pay. It’s about taking a small step—out of the many big steps needed—to reform the criminal justice system in a way that is just, saves money, serves a need, and keeps us all safer.