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May 02, 2008


Hey Anna,

Really, really interesting post! I had a question though. Are you arguing that the prisoners should not do any labor at all? Granted I am against cruel and unusual punishment. But I also believe that prison should be prison and not necessarily "easy." I was wondering what your thoughts on this are? I do agree with the SC that in committing crimes they have lost some of their rights; I'd be interested to hear and to discuss what rights these are or should be (if any!). Thanks!! :)


Work, I think, is a human right, not just a duty. There are models where people who are incarcerated maintain a farm or garden that produces food that's used in the cafeteria, food that's prepared and served and cleaned by other incarcerated people. What's worthy in this model is that it's one of sustainability. The energy of the inmates is used to support themselves and each other, in a model that translates outside of the walls, that teaches important and increasingly rare skills, that decreases the dependency of both individuals and the facility, and that are of real use.

Those models are very, very few and unlikely to be replicated because of, for example, profitable contracts with the providers of (very poor, ill-health producing) food in prisons.

But the bigger piece of it, in the case of major corporations who make use of the labor of inmates, is that these people are being used--I'll say exploited--for no other purpose than that their labor is forced and cheap. That's not far away from slavery--a condition that, I'm sure you'll agree, is never justified, no matter what someone is accused of.

These corporations take advantage of the fact that prisons are places where workers can't unionize, have no choice but to be present, can't vote, work in facilities that aren't held account to traditional labor, safety and health standards of workplaces, and literally can be paid a few cents an hour (which is a serious issue for the many, many inmates who are physically and mentally ill and can't afford medication or food that meets dietary needs; for inmates with spouses and children that are impoverished; for the viability of making a life when they are released).

There's a long-going conversation in whether prisons should be about punishment or rehabilitation, but it's hard to make a case no matter what for how corporations taking advantage of the situation of the incarcerated does anything worthwhile, for themselves or their communities, except increase profits. What's worse, the success of these corporations has come to depend on this labor--and our larger economy, in turn, depends on it.

So, I'm not against work, for anyone. I do believe that people in prison are still people and do still have human rights, no matter what law that's broken.

I hear folks complain that inmates have it easy because they hear tell of, say, televisions or exercise facilities inside. But trust me, prisons are AWFUL places. Nobody is happy there. No one.

And nobody is well-served by our society being dependent on putting more and more people there.

P.S. ... and thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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  • Isak is a space to celebrate tales and truth in the curious, joyful way embodied by the writer for which it is named. The name "Isak," after all, means "laughter," as she was fond of pointing out.

    By tales, I mean fiction (especially short fiction), as well as other literary and artistic narratives. By truth, I mean the world in which we live. I especially have my eye on creative social justice.

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