Vocational Training and Work Opportunities for Inmates
Throughout history, prisons have employed various methods to keep their inmates busy, some of them not so meaningful. Incidences where prisoners are asked to move piles of sand, back and forth, day after day with no purpose, or dig trenches then fill them up again, only to dig them up several more times, have been reported all around the world. These repetitive tasks, referred to by Marin as ‘meaningless work’ were a result of the authorities’ efforts to keep inmates busy as they had discovered that enforced idleness, a tactic previously was not effective (1983). Moreover, these prisons were considered an improvement from the torture and violent tactics used before (Marin, 1983). However, meaningless work has over the years, proved just that, meaningless. Efforts have been made to transform correctional facilities and procedures by providing inmates with work opportunities geared toward specific purposes.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons, an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice has initiated various programs aimed at providing inmates and ex-inmates with purposeful work opportunities. These include the literacy program, which facilitates education for inmates, and Federal Prison Industries, factories where inmates can work for a wage and acquire important skills that can propel their career. Other correctional centers have set up programs where inmates can grow their own food, train dogs from animal shelters, and in some cases, even work for public and private companies (Sieh, 2006). These efforts to have prisoners do meaningful work have been found to help in rehabilitation of the inmates, and cut operational costs for prisons and provide service to the community. According to Sieh (2006), these programs have resulted in fewer repeat offender incidences, with percentages as low as eight reported in some regions – a significant difference from the 74 percent reported earlier.
However, not everybody advocates for provision of work opportunities for inmates, even though most agree that meaningful work is vital to the reform process. Most critics of such programs are organized labor groups who argue that employment of prisoners cuts jobs for those law-abiding citizens that are out of work thereby do not help the state of the economy (Marin, 1983). These groups argue that use of cheap labor, which all industries will seek and which all inmates offer is not beneficial to the economy or the society. In addition, they cite the huge costs incurred when providing vocational training to inmates as another negative factor. On the extreme end are human rights activists who argue that provision of vocational training and work opportunities set up the prisoners for exploitation. While they support meaningful work for inmates, the activists argue that inmates and ex-inmates can easily be exploited, and that unscrupulous employers and supervisors can take advantage of the prisoners’ criminal backgrounds. A third group of opposers argues that providing prisoners with training and work opportunities simply beats the purpose of being locked up in the first place. Their rather unpopular argument is that prisoners can only reform through punishment, and giving them jobs and an education is not a form of punishment.
Despite the sizeable resistance however, providing inmates with meaningful work has proved to be quite beneficial. According to Sieh (2006), inmates are better reformed when placed in programs that provide purposeful work. Proponents say that work for inmates should be meaningful to the effect that it equips the inmates with invaluable skills they can employ elsewhere, as well as provides them with a wage using which they can better their lives. In addition, the work should be beneficial to the general society in some way, such as in provision of goods or services to the society. This, they say, will fill the lives of the inmates with purpose, skill and an income, giving them hope that they can lead a somewhat normal life once they leave the correctional facilities.
Marin, B. (1983). Inside justice: a comparative analysis of practices and procedures for the determination of offenses against discipline in prisons of Britain and the United States. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.
Sieh, E. W. (2006). Community corrections and human dignity. Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.