Should Convicts Have to Earn Their Keep in Prison?


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Should Convicts Have to Earn Their Keep in Prison?
Why doing time shouldn’t absolve you of your fiscal responsibility.
By Jason D. Hill

The recent Red Scare by the Left in declaring that slavery is still legal in five of the United States needs some cautious reflection and analysis on at least one question it raises. Allegedly, the landmark 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which was ratified on December 16, 1865, saw the official abolishment of slavery. It is said, however, that it was allowed to continue as a punishment in prison against convicted felons.

Semantic interpretations of the 13th Amendment aside, and of how it has been and will continue to be applied, there is one moral question that frames the issue and gives it moral heft, so to speak: whether convicted felons ought to be paid for their labor while in prison. These felons include, but are not limited to, wider groups of individuals. They are rapists, murderers, armed robbers, pedophiles, carjackers, child-sex traffickers, and terrorists.

In being incarcerated, such individuals are not simply being punished for their crimes; they are also removed from society as they often pose incalculable harm to individuals and to public safety. They have violated the individual rights of others and have, in some respects, ejected themselves from the ambit of certain rights.

Society pays for their physical, psychological, and medical upkeep through taxation. Taxpayers pay a lot for private prisons. Various reports claim that in the 2018 fiscal year, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spent over $800 million of taxpayer money on privately-owned or -operated detention facilities.

Someone breaks the law, commits a gratuitous crime against others, and has his or her upkeep maintained by law-abiding individuals. In essence, we are paying them not to commit crimes by keeping them off the streets.

But the responsibility should never have been shouldered by the taxpayer in the first place. Criminals should pay their way in prison for their upkeep. A case can be established that not paying them for their labor could be redolent of slave labor. A better solution would be to pay all prisoners a salary for work that they do, tax them on the income they earn, and charge them rent for their residency in prison.

The moral arc of the argument rests on the assumption that rights violation and the lawful penal administration of justice should never absolve one of fiscal responsibility for one’s life.

I do not believe that more people are incentivized to commit more crimes because prison costs them nothing financially. What seems more reasonable to assert is that, while in prison, one has a moral responsibility to be fiscally responsible for one’s physical and medical upkeep. One has to pay for it. The shift of fiscal responsibility ought never have been the prerogative of law-abiding citizens for whom the only justification now for assuming financial responsibility for another person’s life is that he or she broke the law and harmed another or others. The criterion is dubious. A criminal need only invoke the Harm Principle and he is exonerated from fiscal self-responsibility.

The case I make here has absolutely nothing to do with expediency of any sort. That is, it matters not one jot whether working and being paid a salary gives the prisoner a continued sense of purpose, raises self-esteem, or makes him more assimilable when and if he returns to civilian life. These are purely incidental advantages he may incur.

The morally salient factor here is that no person shall be absolved of the requirement to be financially responsible for his life—even if he is incarcerated. If created work that has market value is a condition for the financial upkeep of one’s life, then every prisoner has to be made to work—some at harder labor than others. By the latter I mean the following: depending on the nature of the crime and the degree of harm inflicted against another or others and, in keeping the punishment commensurate to the crime (as is reasonably possible), some prisoners will have more labor extracted from them and will, concomitantly, pay a higher cost in rent for their physical maintenance. This is because they may pose an additional threat to the general prison population, or they may require extra security monitoring.

A just and judicious prison reform initiative cannot aim at anything as ludicrous as the abolition of prisons. It can, however, examine the extent to which “victimless crimes” are even a proper category to begin with. Prison reform can address the punishments meted out for acts that violate laws which themselves might be unjust. I speak here of laws that are in violation of mores and cultural norms, but which do not violate anyone’s individual rights, nor can they ostensibly be shown to harm anyone.

Regardless of the manner in which real criminals are forced into exemption from assuming fiscal responsibility for their lives, the primary and fundamental issue is that prison is a form of involuntary servitude. Even if prisoners were not paid for their labor, so long as one could properly show that the proceeds from their labor were used to support them physically, one could regard moral objections to such unpaid labor as I have described it as an extension of the defense of welfarism. Indeed, if they are paid a wage for their labor one may recommend that their wages be garnished for child support, credit debt, and any outstanding fiscal responsibilities they have to others.

Tax-funded prisoner upkeep is an unfair burden to place on private citizens who should not have to double pay for their safety. Their taxes are already paying law enforcement agents who are responsible for enforcing the law. Why should citizens then have to pay for the welfare of the very agents who are threats to, menaces to, and violators of rights? If private citizens are working up to 60 hours a week to make ends meet by allocating their labor among three jobs, then why should incarcerated criminals not have to work as many hours as is necessary to exempt them from being a financial burden to society?

Slavery is never all right nor morally justifiable even against criminals; but neither is involuntary taxation legitimate when used to provide a way of life for most American prisoners who enjoy accoutrements and benefits of a middle-class existence that many a free person in an impoverished Third World country simply lacks.

The terminology surrounding the 13th Amendment may be rectified at the ballot box. The moral principle that makes it contentious is not that controversial. Criminals forfeit certain rights when they have wantonly violated the rights of others. A transfer of certain responsibilities one has for one’s life (responsibility for one’s fate, destiny, and fiscal upkeep) does not automatically happen when one is ethically removed from the public sphere which one has contaminated by harming others. One is still a participant in one’s self-preservation because there are other ways to bring the marketplace into the domain of the penal system. This will undoubtedly enrage and unhinge prison abolitionists.

Let’s clean up the language of the 13th Amendment if such a feat is required. Agreed. And then let us remind criminals entering the penal system: There are no free lunches. You will pay as you go.


Say something Righteous and Wholesome...
Perhaps most agree prisons serve the following purposes:

1. Remove criminal from society - protection.
2. Impart just punishment and if possible include recompense to the victims of the crime.
3. Rehabilitation - some reasons for crime include ignorance and lack of vocation. Idle hands et all. This can be addressed with education.

As it is in the public interest, there is a need for tax funding, but certainly there can be developed methods to ease the tax burden.

And society may evoke the most harshest of penalty for the violent and reprobate.
Sometimes it seems society invents different crimes to absolve itself of the responsibility to do justice and then cover irresponsibility with money.

But we are cautioned to fear God and seek His wisdom first. Mercy must precede Justice but not bury it.


Well-Known Member
As I posted before, my dad started his career as a prison guard in 1964. He worked at a camp where the inmates had 2 years or less to serve on their sentences, but they still had to go out and do roadwork 5 days a week ~ in all kinds of weather, including the summer heat and winter cold. I know this because my dad was out there guarding them while they worked so he was exposed to all of the same elements. When they weren't working, they still had "chores" to do around the camp like yard work, cleaning their barracks, and at the time the camp raised its own cows so they'd have to feed, take care of, and eventually slaughter them for food. What they didn't do was sit around watching TV, playing cards or games, and doing a whole lot of nothing all day waiting for their next meal like today's inmates.


Well-Known Member
I live in Brevard County, Florida and our Sheriff put together a chain gang for prisoners. It is strictly voluntary and usually cuts their sentence in 1/2 for prisoners that complete the program and their recitivism rate is low. They perform duties such as picking up trash on the side of the road, landscaping, or loading sandbags for hurricanes.

The Sheriff also has another program for prisoners called "Paws and Stripes" program where inmates work at the animal shelters. Carefully selected Inmates are paired with shelter animals and they train and teach them dog obedience. It is an honor to be chosen for this program and they learn valuable dog training skills along with dog grooming.

I think it is important for prisoners to be able to give back to the community in some way.


Well-Known Member
They did the crime, they should do the time, but on as little of our tax dollars as possible. The demonrats complain we need illegal aliens to pick produce, so let the prisoners do it. They should have to work. They should not be able to commit crimes and then sit back and get fed 3 meals a day, watch tv, play video games, etc.


Well-Known Member
In the small town where I grew up in KY, there was a state penitentiary with a rather large capacity for inmates. It was on a number of acres, with a huge gardening area that grew veggies as much of the year as possible, and also had stock animals. They were mostly self-sufficient in their own sourcing for food, but also had a public “market“ where you could purchase their products. They also had the state contract for making license plates, as well as a few other areas where the inmates earned privileges by participating. I only remember a couple of escapes and those were inside jobs. Everyone worked, and if not, they had no privileges. It worked.


Well-Known Member
In theory I agree with the article. Why should we, the taxed, law-abiding public have to foot the bill to maintain inmates? The answer is, of course, we shouldn’t. However because we are people who do care about our fellow man we see to it that food & medical care are provided.

In order to implement the kind of programming discussed here, we’re going to have to dig deeper into our pockets. It will be us who pays for the set up of said programs. It is us who will pay for all the extra officers required to supervise the programs (if officers can even be recruited).

Having worked in corrections for 8 years I can tell you that rehabilitation is a lofty & very rarely attained goal. You cannot instil character in someone who has none.

The left has ensured that that incarceration is not an awful enough thing to be a deterrent. Enabling families ensure that the stay are as nice as can be. They provide funds for extras, constant contact with the outside & often reinforce the idea that prison is a normal part of life.

I don’t know what the answer is. I truly don’t. As long as we have sinful people entering (& often re-entering multiple times) & sinful people running the prison system I don’t think we will ever have a workable answer.