By John Dewar Gleissner, Esq
Your predecessors got our prison systems in a terrible mess. We stacked up many more prisoners than other nations, and at much greater expense, with disastrous consequences. Paying more for prisons and less for education is a sick trend.
Each prisoner costs us about $50,000 per year, and that cost must be multiplied by 2,300,000. You may have heard that it costs less than this to feed, clothe, house and provide medical care to prisoners, but that lower figure does not include the astronomical lost opportunity costs. Locking up that many people and not providing useful work for them means that the value of their labor is lost, too. On the average, each prisoner is able to make about $25,000 per year if put in a regular job. Add this to the direct outlays $25,000 per year, and the cost equals $50,000 per year. This does not count the increased welfare costs outside prison, the social costs of breaking up families and marriages and allowing children to be raised without parents. Nor does this include decreased productivity caused by felons not being able to find employment. Our nation incarcerates more people than any other nation on earth, and a greater percentage of our population is in prison than any other nation on earth. If prisoners were counted as unemployed in unemployment statistics, official unemployment would be 1/2% higher on account of our 2.3 million prison population. As you can see, this is a drag on the entire economy at a time we cannot afford it. Yes, we are in a tremendous predicament. Please take action.
Let’s face it: Modern prison does not work very well, at least not for its original purpose of rehabilitation, and it does not deter enough crime. It does keep criminals out of circulation for a while, and that’s good, but unfortunately prison releases them in worse condition. Prisons are an expensive way to make bad people worse. Many of us have been trying to get your attention. Please help solve the massive prison crisis we have and create more jobs.
Every enlightened warden and prison reformer in history believed that prisoners should work at useful labor. Hard labor is better for the prisoner, prison administration and taxpayers. Many offenders are supposedly sentenced to “hard labor,” but now only a minority of prisoners work, few of them in private businesses. Restrictive legislation was passed years ago due to the unfair competition created by prisoners working for nothing. But things have changed: Most consumer goods are now made outside the United States. Prison-made goods from China sneak into the U.S. easily, while we throttle our own prison industries.
Our laws should permit private businesses to manufacture goods now made exclusively in foreign countries. You should repeal or amend the Ashurst-Sumners and Hawes-Cooper Acts, because those federal statutes deprive prison-made goods the status of being made in interstate commerce, making it tough for them to cross state lines or enter the marketplace. Each state should repeal their statutes discouraging or prohibiting prison industries, at least to allow the manufacture of goods now made exclusively overseas. Prisoners don’t deserve wage and hour protection or the employment protection that law-abiding Americans enjoy, but their workplaces should be safe. Let’s wipe some laws off the books so that employers can freely negotiate with prisoners and not have to worry about most lawsuits. Everybody can win: taxpayers, crime victims, families of prisoners, our economy, organized labor, businesses, prison systems and prisoners. Prison industries will create jobs outside prisons. If we don’t get more Americans working, we will decline in the world, and that’s not our destiny.
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”