If you’ve picked up a newspaper anytime in the past decade, odds are you’ve heard about the United States’ world #1 ranking in rate of incarceration.
As in most, not least.
While the U.S. leads in a lot of admirable categories, having the world record for most people who don’t much care for following the law is probably not a good thing. Whether or not you believe the actual laws on the books leading to high rates of incarceration are worth having, I think it’s safe to say we have a problem on our hands.
But hey, when life gives you lemons (the lemons in this case being prisoners), it’s time to make some tasty lemonade, right? Sure.
It turns out, Elon Musk may have inadvertently stumbled upon precisely the way we can turn our 2.5 million or so human liabilities into assets. That’s because one of Musk’s many brainchildren, SolarCity, is in a bit of hot water over its alleged use of prison labor to complete a solar array project in Oregon. Most people wouldn’t consider Musk a poor man, nor his innovative corporations to be charities. Thus, using prison labor to avoid the high cost of paying those pesky non-convicts to do the work…in order to enrich a “private company”, is probably not most ethically sound practice.
However, we’re likely spending well over $40 billion a year to keep people in substandard housing on land no one wants and given food no one would willingly eat. How in the world is that even possible?
Our prisons aren’t working—literally
The U.S. recidivism rate—that is, the rate at which “reformed” inmates return to prison after being released—has been estimated at 60%. That means, for a majority of prisoners we lock up, our prison system fails to adequately reform them. As a result, they’re either unable or unwilling to find gainful (and legal) employment, and revert back to crime.
While there is likely a constitutional issue with forcing inmates to perform labor, there is absolutely no reason why a variety of work projects shouldn’t be offered as an option at every prison in America.
You know how every election year every candidate from either party talks about America’s “crumbling infrastructure” and the threat it poses to people across the country? These days, we can’t even agree on what our problems are, yet this is one area where there is largely bipartisan agreement that, yeah, our infrastructure could use a bit of a facelift.
Shovel-ready projects, anyone?
So let’s see here. We have over 2.5 million mostly able-bodied people with an average age of 33 sitting around all day with all the time in the world. Their schedules are jam-packed with enriching activities such as playing basketball or maybe occasionally picking up trash along the freeway. And yet, we have an infrastructure problem?
Presuming most inmates don’t particularly enjoy life behind bars, those same 2.5 million people are likely to be eager to learn something, anything, that might help pass the time or help them find a real job once they’re released. Right?
Prison trade school
Prisoners, not surprisingly, make cheap labor. About 93 cents an hour in Oregon, apparently. They’re also a reliable workforce with a low turnover rate—your best talent isn’t likely to be whisked away by headhunters with better job offers.
So why not start teaching prisoners various trades—the very trades needed to complete all the infrastructure supposedly crumbling all around us? In fact, I’ll bet that in a population of 2.5 million, you’re likely to find your trade school teachers (formerly free electricians, carpenters, plumbers, construction workers, etc.) among the inmate population.
When inmates are working together on tangible projects they can take pride in, they’ll be less likely to be playing poker for cigarettes or killing each other. Prisons might just become a little more business-like and a little less adversarial, which can’t be a bad thing.
If an inmate can leave prison knowing how to do work that people are willing to pay for, maybe they’ll decide life’s better with freedom, a paycheck, and a purpose, than it is behind steel bars.
Honestly, is there any reason why prisons shouldn’t pay for themselves and more? Imagine the relief on 50 state budgets if “Department of Corrections” was completely eliminated from the list of growing budget items every single year.
What former prisoners need isn’t so much money as it is purpose, but money helps. If we can teach them to learn, lead, and perform valued skills during their incarceration period, maybe they and they’re families will be able to look back at their prison sentence as a period of growth. Maybe, for many of them, it will be just the blessing in disguise they’ve needed all their lives.