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.
I think they should help in upkeep.. I would, h0wever suggest, be sure that you get all of the tools, and equipment returned in full construction, and no missing parts for weapons. If they try to sabotage the tools, put them in solitary confinement for 30 days.. No reading materials, no radio, and no TV.
So if the convicts resist this “idea” what next, withhold food or release them? The lawyers and the convict writ writers would have a field day and changing the 13th Amendment is about as likely as the proverbial snowball in Hell. I worked in a maximum security penitentiary long ago and murderers and other violent criminals would laugh at this proposal. They’re in prison already they’d say so you would penalize them twice?
Just say your food is in the field. Go get it.
Quote: “charge them “rent” for their residency in prison”
That should be “board” as they also eat at taxpayer expense.
Abbe Faria says
Another dreamer proposes an obviously unworkable “solution” to fit his ideals of human behavior.
A far better idea would be to create and implement a version of Robert Heinlein’s ‘Coventry’. Simply fence off a couple hundred square miles of wilderness and throw the two-legged animals inside. There they can fend for themselves as they please. Let them hunt their food, build their shelter, and clothe themselves as best they can. We should neither help nor hinder them in their efforts. Just keep them inside, and totally away from civilized society.
“Another dreamer proposes an obviously unworkable “solution” to fit his ideals of human behavior.”. I repeat to you what you wrote to the Jason Hill. Jus’ sayin’ …
I agree minus the no supervision. Let them have a farm that provides for their own needs, dangerous tools only for guards, and the prison doesn’t turn the society into slaves that have to upkeep it.
sofa king what says
You’re short-sighted on your opinion in the matter. Part of the corrections system is to foster a system which allows the public to be able to accept convicts back into society and the public pays in part for the system to exist for that reason. Criminals and prisons are simply a reflection of our society as a whole, that’s why we push them away in areas less seen so we can make ourselves feel better in our miserable, meager lives. Now, in your hubris, you want to turn them feral, to dehumanize them…that’s pathetically the same thing criminals do to their victims, they dehumanize them. You are just the same as them. Are you really that dumb then or do you think your heart is somehow better than that of a criminal? Answer: Yes you are and no, it’s not, at all.
THX 1138 says
“Part of the corrections system is to foster a system which allows the public to be able to accept convicts back into society and the public pays in part for the system to exist for that reason.”
Yeh, that’s the problem. We have a bleeding heart altruist’s, magical thinking, rehabilitation, “corrections”, system instead of a justice system.
The justice system rehabilitated, i.e., REINSTATED, Ted Bundy in the ONLY objective way he could be reinstated, justice reinstated, corrected, him to dust.
Michin David says
Yes, my heart is superior to a criminal’s, by your narrow delimiters.
“Criminals and prisons are simply a reflection of our society as a whole” — with its assumption that some productivity/goals are not awarded but achieved through effort.
Spoken like a true enabeler.
I am NOT the same as them.
I am NOT as dumb as them and
My heart is much better than that of a criminal.
Humans are NOT equal out of the womb, or fresh out of prison.
Michin David says
No, they must be supervised. I don’t want some faction to cleverly achieve escape and its ramifications.
Terry from TN says
A ballot measure this November in Tennessee, (created. by a criminal loving Democrat from Memphis), calls for outlawing slavery in the state constitution. The state constitution already prevents slavery, but the wording of the amendment would also end prisoners picking up trash without being paid. Republicans don’t fight against it for fear of being branded ‘pro slavery’. The public will read the first line, vote to outlaw slavery and pat themselves on he back for signaling their virtue. And democracy itself… will be played for a chump. The Information Age should be the golden age of Democracy where an ever better informed and educated citicenry makes ever better decisions. How’s that going?
Michin David says
Lazy readers lead to collectivism. Termites never stop.
I could have sworn I have read articles about people leaving PRISON with HUGE BILLS for their “upkeep”! Most criminals are in prison BECAUSE they can’t or DON’T pay their bills due to their sorry life choices so most are nearly unemployable. AND to add to their misery, what FEW jobs WOULD be available are now taken by illegals so it’s back to what got them there in the first place! But the place to START the ENDING of this mess is IN THE HOMES! The DEMOcrats/rinos have waged WAR on DECENT families for so long that they have succeeded in destroying an overwhelming % of black families and are gaining on white families! The statistics of criminals’ home lives more than bears out the connections – why aren’t the R’s talking about this and DOING SOMETHING?? SCHOOLS are another factor – DEMOcrats RUN SCHOOLS – WHY??? Take the Teachers’ Unions OUT OF SCHOOLS!! TAKE BACK YOUR SCHOOLS! We have so many problems that more money won’t fix. Maybe it’s time to make MORE people PAY THEIR WAY!!
Michin David says
The US doesn’t allow debtors prisons.
Endless potential for corruption, lying would be a good business, you have a slave for years.
They should be made to grow their own food and maintain the place themselves, Japan does this to some extent.
Michin David says
Do they still hang murderers in Japan? I hope so.
Kynarion Hellenis says
“I do not believe that more people are incentivized to commit more crimes because prison costs them nothing financially.”
True, but there are people who prefer prison to the “animating contest of freedom.”
This article is absolutely disgusting.
It isnt enough we have endless laws and an out of control police bureaucracy, now we have to INCENTIVIZE jail?
Are you people TRYING to create a police state? What the hell is wrong with you?
You want to put a man in prison and force him to work YOU PAY HIM FOR HIS GOD DAMN TIME.
He is NOT choosing to be there. YOU chose to put him there
You should be training these men in carpentry or plumbing or auto mechanics. Jobs which EVERY man can do.
You should be explaining banking and investing. Proper nutrition, the basic skills they lack
Meditation, yoga, “soft” disciplines so they can do things other than become adrenaline junkies
Instead of honest wages you enslave them to do the work that enslaved suicidal chinese do only for less. Teaching them that even the government loves theft
Instead of useful skills that they can immediately apply to earning a living you teach them law. LAW? Are you nuts? All they will ise that for is to EVADE THE LAW
And now on top of everything else you LUNATICS want to INCENTIVIZE PRISON
Have any of you cretibs been payibg to attention to the STOLEN ELECTION?! Have any of you noticed that two years in more than HALF of the Jan 6 political prisoners are STILL in jail WITHOUT A TRIAL?
What is wrong with you people?!!!
Michin David says
No disputing your remarks about the 1/6 overreach, Ron. The 1/6 political prisoners are blatantly incarcerated unjustly, while the rest of the prisoners should be organized into functioning adults.
I like my ideas, but even if you win, would reduce the Russian mob shooting people in broad daylight and being happy to go to jail. Many jails in America are a 3 star resort in russia
Kynarion Hellenis says
God gives the individual rights we enjoy, as well as the punishment we receive for violating the rights of others. Government bears the sword to punish those who do evil. Romans 13:4. Punishment should be proportional to the crime (Lex Taliones).
Criminal justice has purposes: 1) to punish the perpetrator, 2) to restore the victim and, when possible, 3) to rehabilitate the criminal. There is no true rehabilitation without restoration of the victim. “Habilitate” means to equip one to live successfully with others in civil society.
So, the requirement of self-support is unquestionable. Wages should be paid to the prisoner. Deductions shall be made for taxes, for room and board, for court fines and restitution to the victim (or his surviving family).
The “morally salient” question does not touch upon slavery, but upon debt. What do criminals owe to their society and their direct victims? Although money can never restore a life taken or damaged, it is the only value we can extract in the interest of justice.
Slavery in this context is a red herring. Slavery mandates that one’s labor belongs to another.
The true slave is the tax-paying citizen, who has been forced to labor for the support of others.
This position relies on the fundamental belief in the legitimacy of the judicial and penal system. If one accepts that many of these people are in fact political prisoners, it becomes little more than a variation of the Chinese practice of billing the families of political prisoners it executes.
In the US, the process is the punishment. The abuse of fees is a well known way to keep people in the system. People with no money are convicted of a minor crime, and then charged court fees. They cannot pay the court fees, so they are fined more. They cannot pay the fines, so they are chaarged and jailed — and incur more fees. This cycle of incurring fines that people cannot pay is a large contributor to homelessness (see, for instance: Jessica Mogk, Valerie Shmigol, Marvin Futrell, Bert Stover, Amy Hagopian, Court-imposed fines as a feature of the homelessness-incarceration nexus: a cross-sectional study of the relationship between legal debt and duration of homelessness in Seattle, Washington, USA, Journal of Public Health, Volume 42, Issue 2, June 2020, Pages e107–e119, https://doi.org/10.1093/pubmed/fdz062 )
Worse, it will be the family of the person whose been incarcerated that pays the price, not the prisoner. Should the children of a prisoner lose what little they have?
Rehabilitation should include work. I don’t care if they’re making big rocks into little rocks all day, they should be working at least 8 hours and preferably 12-14. They won’t cause as much trouble if they’re wore out at the end of the day And when they’re released, they’ll be used to working long hours and an 8 hour workday will seem easy. They can be paid in better food, especially if they’re growing it or raising it, or other privileges. They can also use some of that work time for education, and I’d add home ec financing, like we had in high school (Paying bills, balancing a check book, that sort of thing).
Part of the problem with people institutionalized for long periods is when they leave that kind of structured environment, they aren’t used to legally doing for themselves or working for a living, even if they know how. That’s essential to actually rehabilitating them..
Michin David says
Reporting for duty of some kind should never be thought of as abusive?
If prisoners were required to work and earn a pay check then democrats could not buy their votes with free covid stimulus checks and other free stuff like free education and free movies. That is the reason democrats fight tooth and nail against making inmates work. The devil is always in the democrat details.
Why not, I am game for this.
Should Convicts Have to Earn Their Keep in Prison? Yes!
Tex the Mockingbird says
Restitutsion to their Victims and Victims Families
Hi Jason, I like listening to your podcast. I worked at a State Prison Complex and I can affirm the offenders work. They work inside the prison. They work outside the prison. The industries they work in helps pay for their expenses. They also have substance treatment and every one who is eligible learns a trader or a skill. Not all of them can do this, of course, but when it is at all possible,, they do. There are corporations here that will hire certain ex felons. Plus they have other programming they have to complete. They have some free time, of course, but not a lot.
While I was there, I noticed other State Prisons around the country had some of the same programs.