These License Plates Don't Stamp Themselves

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Minimum wage-hike fever is in the air; but not, for now, at America's prisons

Douglas R. Loving contended his job as a drying machine operator qualified him for protection under the Fair Labor Standards Act—meaning he should get the minimum wage of $5.15 an hour—because the act didn't exempt prisoners.

The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. It upheld a lower court decision's to throw out Loving's lawsuit as frivolous, writing that prisoners are not employees and not entitled to minimum wages.

Reason has been suggesting alternatives to a minimum wage hike for years, although these ideas might not apply to workers in the correctional system.

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  1. If they aren’t employees, what are they?

    The question kind of answers itself, doesn’t it.

    It strikes me that paying them minimum wage, and accumulating it in a trust account that they have limited access to until they get out of prison, would be an excellent way to give these men a chance at not falling back into a criminal lifestyle.

  2. Or it would give them some seed money to jump right back in.

    Perhaps the prisoners should bid on the jobs. Methinks they’d end up with about what they’re getting now.

    Of course I miss the good old days when prisoners would make big rocks into little rocks. Not because we need little rocks. Because a tired prisoner is less likely to be a problem.

  3. Or maybe to pay restitution to his victims?

  4. “The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. It upheld a lower court decision’s to throw out Loving’s lawsuit as frivolous, writing that prisoners are not employees and not entitled to minimum wages.”

    Shhhh- don’t tell Jennifer.

  5. Creech-

    I see your point, but R C Dean’s point about rehabilitation is also a good one. And if the prisoner receives nothing for his work then there’s less incentive to work, earn money for restitution, and maintain good behavior.

    Perhaps the money could be divided (in some ratio that can be worked out to balance incentives and justice) between a fund for after release, restitution to victims, and a small amount to draw on while in prison for small luxuries (to provide immediate incentives).

    Of course, one could ask questions about where the restitution money goes if there is no identifiable victim….

  6. Slave labor in the land of the free. Gotta love it.

  7. a small amount to draw on while in prison for small luxuries (to provide immediate incentives).

    With the trend of prisons outlawing cigarettes, they need a new currency in prisons. Bitches is too large a denomination for small tasks and it’s hard to get change.

    In all seriousness, I endorse thoreau and RC’s comments.

  8. Involuntary servitude as a result of a criminal conviction is perfectly constitutional.

  9. On the topic of “rehabilitation” more or less, I believe that nobody should ever be allowed to walk out of prison unable to read.

    Just, please, don’t turn the job over to the public school system and the NEA.

  10. How many of these would-be minimum wage earning gravel producers are in prison on drug convictions? My guess is a substantial number who, whether in the profitable end of the drug business or the user / dealer end are unlikely to be lured or reformed by minimum wages. Minimum wage jobs are, after all, plentiful and posed no attractive alternative to such prisoners in the first place.

    Restitution is fine, but so would be using convict labor to reduce the costs of their confinement. So the prior question in isolation ought to be what is the fair market value of prisoner labor? Of course, private businesses balk at the use of prisoner labor, claiming it is unfair to free employees and to employers who must pay their higher wages. But it seems to me this is simply a restraint of trade resulting in higher taxpayer expenses to facilitate local private interests.

    If prisoners have or can develop marketable skills that can be used to earn income while serving their prison sentences, the proper approach should be to let them vie in the market. Given that they are not employees but, in fact, involuntary servants, how their wages should be allocated as among the taxpayers, the victims and themselves can be varied from case to case.

  11. “Involuntary servitude as a result of a criminal conviction is perfectly constitutional.”

    That is true. On the other hand, the US government routinely lectures other nations about using uncompensated prison labor. The mere fact that something is constitutional does not make it unhypocritical.

  12. The mere fact that something is constitutional does not make it unhypocritical.

    Or un-evil. The horrible results of things like Drug War property confiscations should demonstrate why there should be no financial incentives for the government to make a profit off of catching or incarcerating criminals. Viva capitalism and everything, but some systems are best run at a loss.

  13. SR,

    Well, in the first place, the use of prison labor in the U.S. isn’t that significant (especially for those in super-max prisons and the sort of new prisons that are replacing the super-max prisons), and this is for obvious reasons – unions and other interest groups have significant incentives to oppose prison labor outside some quite menial activities like making license plates. Secondly, those prisoners who do work are generally compensated, though they don’t get the minimum wage that most workers get.

  14. SR,

    Also remember that Jennifer has a lot of mistaken notions about prison labor worldwide generally; she thinks that the Chinese economy is significantly advantaged by it, even though studies have disproven this (most prison labor in the PRC produces cheap, low-value items that requires state support to sell).

  15. studies have disproven this (most prison labor in the PRC produces cheap, low-value items that requires state support to sell).

    Like ADIDAS soccer balls?

  16. Mo,

    I can’t speak to specific products. 🙂

  17. “Of course, private businesses balk at the use of prisoner labor, claiming it is unfair to free employees and to employers who must pay their higher wages.”

    Not in Nevada.

    ————

    Re: minimum wage work

    What’s-his-name, “Freakonomics” did/ has an interesting section which concludes that the overwhelming majority of lower echelon drug dealers are pretty close to minimum wage rates for substantially riskier work.

  18. Phil,
    There was a lawsuit a few years back (either last or two World Cups back) that ADIDAS was using China prison labor to make promotional soccer balls. This is hardly something that requires state support. Also, in my international business and business ethics classes, recent examples and studies have shown that prison labor is being used in a profit maximizing way in China.

  19. Mo,

    I am sure that in some few instances that it is, but the overall point is that it isn’t the engine behind Chinese economic growth.

  20. P Brooks,
    I though Freakonomics showed that the wages were actually far below minimum wage.

    Also, PhiL, check Osbourne’s research (name is right, not sure about the spelling). I believe that’s the one we read in ethics. I left all that paperwork back in the Bend.

  21. Ok Jennifer, who pays for that “loss”?

    You. Me. My children.

    Now, I’ll buy into the argument that prisons should not force labor onto people that can readily be supplied buy the market. There are plenty of companies more than willing to make license plates or pave roads.

    The only work a prisoner should be forced to perform is that which keeps the prison running. Laundry, food, janitorial, and basic maintenance. Let then ‘pay’ for their own stay and minimize the impact on our taxes. Other than that, give them busy work of making pebbles with no compensation or let them sit in a cell looking at the ceiling.

    But don’t let the state make a buck off of it.

  22. P Brooks,

    What’s-his-name, “Freakonomics” did/ has an interesting section which concludes that the overwhelming majority of lower echelon drug dealers are pretty close to minimum wage rates for substantially riskier work.

    I don’t believe that he is the first economist to come to that conclusion.

  23. Shouldn’t we expect a return of slavery, eventually, as the country continues its slide away from liberty?

  24. Jennier is right that property confiscation is an abomination, especially because one not even need be convicted to have one’s shit taken.

    This leads me to proposing a slightly more stringent version of something I’ve said in the past: I say we remove the just compensation clause and, additionally, the public use clause from the fifth amendment. Just end the thing with “nor shall private property be taken”. That would solve imminent domain and drug war property seizure in one go.

    On the topic of prison labor, I like RC’s proposal on its face, although I’d have to think more about the specific sorts of behaviors such a thing would incent. I also think P Brooks makes a fair point about maybe teaching prisoners to read and other such useful life skills. However, there are some problems with trying to do that while they’re in prison.

    1) It’s only really safe to do it for non-violent offenders. I mean, I don’t think it’s a that great an idea to have your local CC instructor down in a room full of CRIPS, for instance. Of course, I presume that the same folks who currently qualify for prison labor would also qualify for any educational program.

    2) I’m not sure prison really offers the best learning environment, I’d imagine that it’d be hard to focus on learning anything when there’s the very real threat of being gang raped in the shower.

    3) You can’t force people to learn. You can force them to go to class, you can even give them incentives to do well through reward and punishment, but you cannot make them learn if they don’t want to. This is an unsolvable problem.

    So, I’m thinking maybe we combine RC’s idea with P Brooks’ point about edumakation by paying the prisoners the minimum wage of the state they’re in with the bulk of it going to a trust for when they get out and some going to immediate cash to buy things at the PX or whatever. The trust could be structured to provide some cash, but some proportion of it would only go to pay for College, Community College, technical school, or high school equivalency. The rest would be held until completion of one such program. I’m not proposing that we set up an equivalency program specially, but that ex-cons make use of the local CCs, commuter schools, trade schools and whatnot. That way they’ll be held to the same standards as everyone else in the program, and you’ll see minimal gaming of the system. It doesn’t solve all the problems, and of course not #3, but I think it could work.

  25. P Brooks-

    Freakonomics is awesome! Much better than “The Undercover Economist.” The extent of street-level data that he got was unusual for an industry that (for obvious reasons) rarely publicizes its operations and accounting practices.

  26. Ok Jennifer, who pays for that “loss”? You. Me. My children.

    Imprisoning those who are a danger to society is a legitimate government function and legitimate use of tax money, I think. But the rest of your post makes me suspect you agree with me more than not. So far as I’m concerned, the government’s only motivation in locking someone up should be “this man is dangerous and can’t run around loose,” not “Hey! I know how to move our budget into the black!”

    And if this means a state is spending more than it can afford on the prison system, well, perhaps that’s a sign that you’re arresting too many people who don’t need to be. Reconsider some victimless crimes, perhaps.

  27. thoreau: I wasn’t all that impressed by Freakonomics, I think given the data he collected a lot of the conclusions were pretty obvious. I thought it was good, but not revolutionary or anything. I do have to agree, though, that the street-level data collection was pretty impressive.

  28. Let’s note that prisons in the U.S., no matter what level of criminalization for “deviance” we have had, have historically been underfunded. The drug war and like activities didn’t create this pattern.

    Timothy,

    As most historians of the prison argue it is hard to learn how to be free in a cage; any education or work program is unlikely to overcome this problem.

  29. Actually, Levitt claims both that retail level crack dealers were earning around $3.30 an hour as dealers and that many of them also held legitimate minimum wage jobs. I don’t know whether he’s right or wrong. Assuming he’s right, the question then becomes what other than immediate financial return motivates such dealers — greater local status, perceived better promotion opportunities, whatever. What nonetheless appears to be the case is that minimum wage, entry level legitimate jobs are available to these people but are not considered a viable alternative to their criminal activities.

  30. Timothy-

    Freakonomics may be unimpressive from an academic perspective, but as a book for the layman it is still a very fun read.

  31. Of course a lot of this talk assumes that people can be rehabilitated, indeed that we are expert enough in psychology and sociology to fix some significant pathologies. I hate to be cynical, but we aren’t there yet, especially in light of what we are discovering re: how early socialization, etc. effects future life patterns.

  32. What is really cool (from a technological perpestive) are the new prisons built with modular units and designed for maximum observational ability. In some ways they are Bentham’s wet dream.

  33. As far as my feelings about teaching prisoners to read, I am merely concerned with literacy, per se, and the basic skills which most of us take utterly for granted as we go through the day. I do not advocate attempting to impose “moral structure” on the process. If we can get them to read comic books, fine. Maybe some day they might stumble across an issue of Reason and read it.

    ————

    Freakonomics was pretty spotty, in my estimation; good stuff, not-so-good stuff. As a framework for having a look at things from a different perspective, highly commendable. Like everything else, not a good idea to swallow it whole (kind of like the Global Warming debate).

  34. This is an easy one – pay the prisoners minimum wage, hell – go all out – make it .25 over minimum wage. Then impose a ‘prison tax’ to prisoners, along with making them pay all other taxes. That way, if they don’t work while in prison, they can get thrown right back in for ‘prison tax’ evasion.

    That will teach them to want to get treated as poorly as those of us not in prison.

  35. Jesus, making someone work while in prison may or may not be a good idea, but it isn’t slavery. They’re prisoners, duly convicted and sentenced, not slaves. Now, if you think many of them went to prison for violating unjust laws (and I do), then those laws should be changed. But there’s nothing wrong in principle with being sentenced to labor. Yes, it sucks to be forced to do labor, but it sucks even worse to go to prison.

  36. But there’s nothing wrong in principle with being sentenced to labor. Yes, it sucks to be forced to do labor, but it sucks even worse to go to prison.

    I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with prison labor; I’m saying there’s something wrong with the government making money off of it. Fine, sentence some guy to turn big rocks into little ones–but not if the government has a financial stake in that.

  37. Absolutely nothing produced from prison labor actually makes a “profit”. When you add the costs of hiring, training, maintaining, and equipping police officers and police stations and accompanying administrative surroundings. Building, creating, training personnel, and equipping/furnishing/maintaining court systems, prisons, and other monitoring systems. Combine that with all of the capital spent to prevent crime in the first place. All of that has to be thousands of times higher than the “profits” generated from making your own license plates. License plate making and all other ‘prison profit centers’ just make the multi-billion dollar loss insignificantly less. There is no profit, there is no “in the black”. They could be creating Microsoft Foghorn Leghorn for chrissakes, and the “profits” generated wouldn’t make up the cost to put them there and keep them there.

  38. I just wonder what’s up with my family name and court cases. Not that I haven’t had a couple myself, mind you. Getting picked off about 8 years ago after my ex-wife ordered Valium over the internet from another country was a fun one.

  39. I just noticed a gaffe in the linked 1996 Reason article. It says,

    [The fast-food restaurant] can buy machines, shorten its hours, perhaps even raise its prices (though this is a doubtful proposition since prices are determined, not by costs, but by supply and demand; if a restaurant could charge more for a hamburger, it would be doing so already, whatever the minimum wage).

    If the marginal cost of output increases, supply decreases and the price increases. In fact, the supply curve is marginal cost above minimum average variable cost (and average total cost in the long run). So it’s quite wrong to say that cost doesn’t determine price.

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