Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Against prison slave labour

Over the weekend, the Herald reported that prisoners earned more than $6 million in wages last year. The subtext, backed up by their unopposed quote from the "hang 'em high" brigade's Garth McVicar, is that this is too much. But that's getting things exactly backwards. As the Herald notes, most of this money, over $4 million, was earned by a small number of low-security prisoners participating in a "release to work" scheme, in which they are released during the day to work in an ordinary workplace, with transparent deductions made for accommodation expenses (a programme I support). As for the rest,

For the year to June 2009, there were 1576 inmates employed in prison-based work, which mainly involved cleaning units.

For the 2.24 million hours completed, prisoners received about $675,000 in total, which was about 20c to 40c an hour.

And there were 2230 low-security prisoners involved in Corrections Inmate Employment last year and they earned $1.69 million in total, about 40c an hour.

(Emphasis added)

"Inmate Employment" involves prisoners either working in Corrections-owned businesses within prison walls, or being rented out to outside businesses. They're doing real work, but they're not being paid a real wage. Instead, they are paid a pittance, their labour effectively coerced by the mind-numbing tedium of imprisonment and the threat of a bad report in parole hearings.

There is a name for people kept in cages and forced to work for the benefit of others. They are called "slaves". If a private employer was doing this, they'd end up in prison. But if the government does it, its somehow OK, and called "cost-recovery". But it is not OK. Slavery is never acceptable, and its use in New Zealand prisons should be a matter of deep shame to every New Zealander.

I am not arguing that prisoners should not be allowed to work. I think the release-to-work scheme is a great idea - it integrates prisoners back into the community and gives them something to do when they are released. Likewise, I support genuinely educational training schemes. What I oppose is the exploitative use of a literally captive labour pool for government profit. If the government wants to run "business units" within prison walls to give prisoners something to do, or get them to cook and clean in the prison to give them a sense of ownership, then they should do so under the same conditions that apply to everyone else: work should be voluntary, with full labour rights, a fair days wage, and any deductions for accommodation made transparently. Anything less is forced labour, and a crime against humanity.