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Letter: Prison Reform
By John Dewar Gleissner, Esq
Published: 08/22/2011

Time for change istock 000015806600xsmall Editor's note: The following is a copy of a letter sent by corrections.com author John Gleissner to President Obama, Alabama’s U.S. Senators, Sen. Jim Webb (D.-Va., who has expressed a desire for reform) and a U.S. Congressman.

After years of study and publication of a book on the subject, I see a way to bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States from foreign countries. We can boost the American economy by using a massive undeveloped human resource, American prison labor, to make products now made exclusively overseas. Under this proposal, rehabilitation prospects and tax revenues would increase, while recidivism and government expenditures would decline. Prisoners would pay more restitution and child support. Everyone in America can win!

As you know, our nation has 2.3 million prisoners, more than any other country in the world. A greater percentage of our population is behind bars than in any other country. The direct costs are about $25,000 per prisoner per year, although lost opportunity costs and the full range of social costs likely double this amount. With a growing number of retirees, we cage 2.3 million largely able-bodied younger people and keep them idle most of the time. Unemployment statistics would rise if we counted prisoners as unemployed workers. The American prison population is the largest group of full-ride welfare recipients in the nation and perhaps the world. With time on their hands, prisoners resort to illegal gang activities. Recidivism and suicide rates remain high under our current regime of inactivity, overcrowding, a terrible moral environment, insufficient rehabilitation and drug treatment, too few probation officers, and what some call New Age slavery followed by the New Jim Crow. About 16% of prisoners are mentally ill. The U.S. Supreme Court recently highlighted the ongoing disaster in Brown v. Plata, a 5-4 decision. States increasingly spend more on corrections than education, a sick trend. According to the NAACP, mass incarceration is the greatest crisis facing our democracy. Mass incarceration harms the entire nation.

In the 1800s, American prisons in half a dozen states made money. One New York prison made profits four times greater than the cost of running the entire prison. The Auburn System developed in Auburn, New York emphasized industrial work under severe conditions. Prison labor in the industrial setting can be profitable, though it need not be harsh. The punitive correctional model often re-asserts itself. Using prisoners on road crews and in the agricultural setting increases security costs and is less productive in this context than manufacturing. Historically, the United States calls upon prison labor for help during times of national crisis.

Businesses and labor outside prisons objected to early prison industries. The classic example involved a wooden barrel-making facility in prison competing with a wooden barrel-making facility outside prison. Under the 13th Amendment, the labor of prisoners belongs exclusively to the state. Businesses using this labor enjoyed a competitive advantage. In the nineteenth century, states started restricting prison industries. The Hawes-Cooper Act (1929) and Ashurst-Sumners Act (1935) at the federal level denied prison-made goods the status of being made in interstate commerce and prohibited the interstate shipment of prison-made goods. Legislation virtually outlawed private prison industries.

The Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP), a federally sponsored program to develop partnerships between private enterprise and prison labor, successfully reduces recidivism. But because PIECP participants must pay the prevailing wage in the area and meet seven other requirements, only a handful of offenders are involved. According to one law professor, this program merely “exchanges one debilitating limit on prison labor for another.” PIECP is just a narrow exemption from the stifling repression of prison industries brought about by the Hawes-Cooper Act, Ashurst-Sumners Act and their state counterparts. Most prison industries operate on the state-use basis and only manufacture goods sold to federal, state and local governments; they cannot generally sell on the open market. But federal, state and local governments are not required to purchase from prison industries. Therefore, prison industries are severely limited in viability and scope. UNICOR does a great job in the federal system, but under these legal handicaps still only employs a minority of federal inmates. Of the 2.3 million offenders in prison right now, only a fraction work productively, usually in government jobs making goods solely for the state or helping run or supply the prison itself. Some prisoners sleep 17 hours a day. Solitary confinement has been on the rise and predictably causes mental illness. Our wasteful system of “state slavery” is an expensive way to make bad people worse.

The landscape changed. Most of our consumer goods are manufactured overseas. Chinese prison-made goods enter the United States illegally with ease, while American prison-made goods cannot even cross state lines. We need a free trade agreement with ourselves!

The loss of American manufacturing creates an opportunity for prison labor to substantially support domestic labor and industries. If we allowed prisoners to work in private businesses, manufacturing goods now made exclusively overseas, we would create jobs inside and outside American prisons. In Alabama, we see jobs created in a circle around manufacturing plants. Everyone in America would benefit, including organized labor, if we put prisoners to work in the private sector without normal employment costs and restrictions. Prison industries would hire free skilled workers and boost revenues. Low-cost components made in American prisons might support American manufacturing of finished products.

Congress and State legislatures could and should allow American federal and state prisoners to (a) accept private employment working in secure facilities, (b) free of all federal and state labor and employment legislation and regulation, except safety regulations and some compensation for permanent injuries, (c) making goods now made exclusively overseas. This would not be convict leasing, but simply allow prisoners and employers to agree upon the wages, hours and conditions of employment closer to a laissez-faire, employment-at-will basis, without fear of lawsuits, and subject to any written contracts between employers and working prisoners. Nor would this necessarily extend current “prison privatization,” which now only privatizes the warehouse function of prisons. The right of prisoners to return to the general prison population would assure decent working conditions.

Prisoners want to work, but there are never enough jobs for them. At the same time, by virtue of their crimes, prisoners do not deserve the wide array of employment benefits and rights provided to law-abiding American workers. Prisoners might work 60 hours per week making $2.00 per hour, allowing American businesses to compete with foreign manufacturers. Some American prisoners now work for pennies per day. “Hard work wins.” Some will claim this is exploitation, but offenders exploit society and deserve punishment. If prisoners agree to these conditions, it is not exploitation.

The earnings of prisoners could be placed in a trust account, and the proceeds allocated towards restitution, child support and the costs of their confinement. A small nest egg (“freedom dues” as our indentured servant ancestors called it) could be given to prisoners when released. Private businesses would absorb some incarceration costs, rent prison space or purchase food and lodging from prisons. Prisoners serving terms of life imprisonment, which experience shows make some of the best workers, could be allowed to purchase additional goods in prison. Under a federal framework encouraging interstate commerce, each state could develop prison industry laws.

Wardens know that prison work reduces violence and problems. Every prison reformer believed that prisoners should work. In his 1912 book Fifty Years of Prison Service, Zebulon Brockway outlined an ideal prison system. Brockway said prisoners should support themselves in prison through industry in anticipation of supporting themselves outside prison; outside businesses and labor unions must not interfere; prisoners should earn their release with constructive behavior, not just the passage of time; and education and a Christian culture should be imparted. Restrictive labor legislation thwarted Brockway’s ideals.

Many prisoners have never held regular jobs and most have difficulty finding work when released. Learning to work hard in prison would prepare the 95% who are eventually released.

We can turn parasites into producers. Hard work is healthy and uplifting. Prisoners would prefer private workhouses and work communities to the general prison population, whether inside existing prisons or in separate secure work communities. Employers could hire those they prefer and send disobedient prisoners back to the general prison population immediately. Prisoners could opt for such return if conditions were not better in private businesses. Accumulated earnings in trust accounts would improve prisoner behavior, like bonds, because misconduct would reduce their freedom dues. To obtain jobs in these private businesses, prisoners in the general population would obey prison rules.

Religious organizations should be allowed to own, operate, monitor, inspect and help these work communities, applying their own religious doctrines and discipline in any they manage. Private businesses would facilitate better visitation at little cost, benefiting the families of prisoners. The power of prison gangs can be broken.

Every political stripe wants change. While some look to other countries for solutions, I found inspiration in American history. When the Constitution was written, we had very little incarceration.

Nations do not prosper by putting millions of able-bodied workers on the sidelines. We did not become a great nation by imprisoning our productive labor force, handicapping workers and industries and forcing people to rest in cages. Mutually beneficial exchanges made America great. We should re-affirm the importance of hard work, private enterprise, less government control, freedom of contract and competition. We will boost the American economy and reduce our debts.

Almost everyone I speak with is in favor of letting prisoners work hard under these conditions. I have other suggestions for reducing the prison population through community corrections, but those are controversial and have hampered the main prison reform effort. One of our goals should be to shrink the prison population, although court-ordered releases from overcrowding litigation usually increase the crime rate.

Federal and state employment laws must change if prison industries are to prosper. Action should begin at the federal level; hence this letter. Your leadership in effecting these prison reforms will benefit the entire nation. Please let me know when, where and how I can assist the process of “clearing the decks” for hard work, rehabilitation, job creation and factories behind fences. Thank you very much.

* * * * * *

Corrections.com author John Dewar Gleissner, Esq. graduated from Auburn University (B.A. with Honor, 1973) and Vanderbilt University School of Law (1977), where he won the Editor's Award and participated in the Men's Penitentiary Project. In addition to practicing law in Alabama for the last 33 years, Mr. Gleissner is the author of the new book "Prison and Slavery - A Surprising Comparison"

Other articles by Gleissner:


  1. Librarian on 08/23/2011:

    "Alabama is a state whose over-use of incarceration for non-violent African-American offenders has alarmed advocates and policy analysts nation-wide." [see this web site verifying this quote] http://www.justicestrategies.org/sites/default/files/Alabama_Prison_Crisis_Oct_2005.pdf In an effort to examine why this disturbing trend exists, and what can be done about it, the Drug Policy Alliance commissioned an important study in October 2005. The study examined the current sentencing and corrections practices in the state of Alabama and laid out a comprehensive road map for effective reforms. What happened to that concrete plan of action, informed by evidence-based research? Could it be that Alabama does not accept the responsibility to reduce the death, disease, harm and suffering of drug addiction? Rather than follow the suggestions in the report, did Alabama decide the best “policy” was to save tax payers money and resort to the individual responsibility of “just say no” and if that did not work then use tax payer money to lock them up and call it “full-ride welfare”(much more expensive)?? If John Dewar Gleissner would place his idea for Prison Reform into the context of the discussion of thousands of policy experts tackling the problem of over incarceration in the United States, then his ideas would hold more policy water. However, instead of referencing all the modern research that offers policy changes that have been proven to work, he quotes from a 1912 book Fifty Years of Prison Service for his “ideal prison system”. What he describes are wage slaves, without choice in working conditions coupled with education promoting a “Christian culture”. His idea of prison reform would not prepare inmates to be free citizens, but be the seed to germinate a society of obedient workers beholden to employers to determine the fate of their families and future. The ideas in his article are NOT “forward thinking” but regressive thinking that will take our whole country back to “the good ol’ days” before civil rights and a living wage. Forward thinking would lead toward a more compassionate society where people learn how to handle their freedom with responsibility, not fear.

  2. Annebeth Riles Broad on 08/17/2011:

    Excellent article...BRAVO...this is forward thinking, and something that I have been advocating for years... Annebeth Riles Director of No Excuses Corrective Training.

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