The practice of prison labor is almost as old as the ages. In fact, many forms of ancient slavery lie in the use of conquered people for work. Currently, the idea and practice of prison labor is as diverse as it is controversial. Arguments for and against it are often based on broad assumptions about how and why prison labor is used.

For example, in Vermont a new system of prison labor is currently employed that doesn’t fit the standard chain-gang or license plate mold. Prisoners at one small county jail are free to work in their community at fair market wages, with modest deductions for their room and board and other reasonable costs, such as child support. Prisoners do not work inside the prison but work at normal jobs; they wear normal clothes, not jailhouse blues; they maintain normal community ties and are not subjected to any form of dehumanization or disrespect as a result of their imprisonment, and they are free to work real jobs by which they can maintain themselves and their families after their term of incarceration. In this one Vermont jail, prisoners are really re-integrated into society; rehabilitation is the underlying motivation, not a by-product of profits.

But this lone Vermont phenomenon is in direct contrast to the rest of the nation’s prison-industrial complex. In states like Wisconsin and California, prisoners work in jailhouse factories for third-world wages. Furthermore, rather than being equal competitors to their unincarcerated counterparts, they are actually state-subsidized monopolistic forces, taking jobs away from hard-working Americans in industries like manufacturing and telemarketing.

State and federal agencies claim that prison industry is rehabilitating convicts with job training, encouraging a work ethic and discipline, giving prisoners the skills that will allow them to be successful outside of prison. However, most prison industry is in the manufacturing sector, the very industry that is already on the decline in the American job market.

Far from being trained for life outside of prison, in California prisoners are surveyed for over 50 skills that they already possess upon arrival and are generally put to work doing tasks that they already know how to do. In South Carolina, at Evans Correctional Facility, over 250 jailhouse workers are working for an IBM supplier and “many inmate workers are over-qualified for the jobs they hold,” according to Bert Christy, a plant manager at the site, quoted in a February 1999 article in Perspective Magazine.

There are also numerous cases of convicts working as telemarketers taking credit card information, although most telemarketing firms would not hire ex-convicts, even if they were already trained. Indeed prison labor is taking jobs away from the working class in many communities, which in turn encourages higher rates of incarceration in those very same communities.

Rather than offering substantial job training to encourage market growth, prisons are being used to nail the coffin door closed on industries that are already reeling from the effects of globalization. Furthermore, when short-term profits are the driving force for prison labor, it is virtually guaranteed that convicts are not being trained for a wide range of jobs that they might actually get in the non-prison world. This is because training is an investment which capitalist ventures desire to minimize. It’s not profitable in the short term to train large numbers of convicts on a variety of jobs; rather they will be kept to what is most efficient.

Until our society stops manufacturing criminals, it is best if those who are jailed are not idle, so in the meantime their activities should be individually focused on their talents and potentials, to provide each person with the best path toward a fulfilling and productive life. And that should not be confused with expedient profits. Job training is a good so long as it is not just mindless activity.

Brandi Kishner is a young writer and student living in Chicago. She can be reached at bkishner@pww.org