Prison Labor: Moral Obligations vs Economic Growth

Andrea Cumming- Honorbound P7.

Usually, prison labor, which is essentially free work done by prisoners, is seen to have a negative impact on the labor market. However, in reality research has shown the complete opposite. Employing inmates actually helps boost the economy and increase the workforce outside of jails. According to a study by the National Center of Policy Analysis if 1.6 million prisoners were employed about 9 billion tax payer dollars could be saved yearly [1]. This being said, is putting inmates to work at extremely low prices moral even though it boosts the economy? And how does prison labor affect the labor market as a whole?

Economic progress can be measured by more than just GDP. In his book “Naked Economics” Charles Wheelan states that the rise of life expectancy, a 93% plunge in infant mortality, and control over fatal diseases can be accredited to our market economy [2]. Similarly, the impact prison labor has on our economy can be measured by more than just monetary gain. Perhaps one of the most important aspects of this labor is the reduction of recidivism rates [3]. Recidivism is the measure of a person’s likelihood to relapse into criminal behavior. If inmates are taught useful skills throughout their time in jail they are more likely to go out and start better lives for themselves. This, in turn, helps everyone as a whole.

In an article published by the American Economist, Charles E. Scott states that “Unions fear the artificially low prison wages and the preferential access to government markets by prison labor employers.” However, after doing some research he concludes that “current prison employment has…rather easily absorbed into the American labor market [4].” Therefore, rather than hurting the labor market employing inmates actually boosts the economy. All prison labor requires material from outside businesses. This material creates a demand for non-prison workers. Instead of creating extra competition for laborers, prison labor actually helps these people find jobs.

Although prison labor has all these positive outcomes, there is still a moral question at hand. In his book, Wheelan says “the market economy is amoral… it rewards scarcity, which has no inherent relation to value [5].”Is it acceptable to profit off of the hard work of inmates and give them little to no compensation in return? Some people might argue that these actions can be justified because of the crimes committed by these people, but at the same time they are still human beings with rights [6].The market allows the rest of the country to profit from the work of these laborers because they gain utility from free labor. It becomes a question of opportunity cost, an important concept in “Naked Economics.” Opportunity Cost is defined by the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen [7]. By choosing to employ prisoners the rest of society profits by having a boost in the economy; however, they risk the guilt of treating prisoners similarly to slaves. On the other side, similar risks apply.

Even though prison labor has some downsides to its system, it brings about more positivity than negativity. It boosts the economy, reduces recidivism, and increases demand for workers. Without prison labor millions of inmates would sit idly for their years in prison. Studies also show that prisoners greet prison labor programs with enthusiasm not contempt [8].

[1] Reynolds, Morgan O. “The Economic Impact of Prison Labor.” National Center for Policy Analysis. Accessed October 18, 2016.

[2] Wheelan, Charles. Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science [New York: Norton, 2010], 4.

[3] Scott, Charles E. “Prison labor effects on the unskilled labor market.” Free Patents Online. Accessed October 18, 2016.

[4] Scott, Charles E. “Prison labor effects on the unskilled labor market.” Free Patents Online. Accessed October 18, 2016.

[5] Wheelan, Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science, 20.

[6] Boyle, Louise. “America’s only female chain gang.” Daily Accessed October 17, 2016.

[7] Wheelan, Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science, 35.

[8] “Sheriff runs female chain gang,” Accessed October 17, 2016.



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