Prison Labor out of the Box, and in

Labor by prisoners is complicated enough — but it doesn’t get any easier once an offender’s sentence is complete.

In difficult economic times, it’s that much harder for ex-prisoners who have to check off the “yes” box on job applications that ask, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”

Nationwide, an array of reform organizations decry the question, which they say unfairly punishes former offenders who have already served their time.

In Florida, the Orlando Sentinel reports that the American Civil Liberties Union wants to ban the felony question from state employment applications.

“Once you check that box in this tight market, it’s fatal,” Orlando attorney Glenn R. Leong, told the newspaper.

Some cities have already done so, include New Haven, Connecticut, Boston, San Francisco and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Ironically, many get job training while in prison that some say is great preparation for re-entry into the workforce — a practice that others consider exploitative.

Roy Exum, a columnist in the Chattanoogan, sings the praises of a Walker County, Georgia, program that sees inmates trained as firefighters and sent out on calls.

He imagines an extensive, regulated program that can “further tap in to an unbelievable source of energy by using prison labor to make our world better.”

This, he writes, would reward promising inmates by enabling them to work off their sentences and gain job skills.

In West Virginia, state legislator Dave Perry sees “work-release venues and prison labor programs” as a way to ease overcrowding in the state’s prisons, according to the Register-Herald newspaper.

Yet the Young Turks, a liberal satellite-radio talk show and Internet blog, decries businesses such as Federal Prison Industries, Inc., which operates 86 factories in 48 federal prisons around the country, manufacturing products such as electronic cables and golf balls, and even has prisoners in New Mexico handling hotel reservations.

Describing prison labor as “exploitation,” Young Turks columnist Daniel Slack writes that “Honda has paid inmates $2 an hour for doing the same work an auto worker would get paid $20 to $30 an hour to do … Konica has used prisoners to repair copiers for less than 50 cents an hour.”

–Ronnie Lovler/


“‘Ban the Box’ Gets Thumbs Up”
New Haven Independent, February 4, 2009

“Ex-felons still pay for crimes with long waits to restore rights”
Orlando Sentinel, July 17, 2009

“Ban the box – ex-convict job seekers no longer required to disclose criminal past”, January 10, 2009

“Employer Demand for Ex-Offenders: Recent Evidence from Los Angeles”
Urban Institute, March 2003

“National Employment Law Project (NELP) Second Chance Labor Project”
June 25, 2009

“Roy Exum: My Prison Reform” July 9, 2009

“Interims panel to look at prison task force report”
Register-Herald, July 10, 2009

“Justice, Revenge and the Death Penalty, who is the fuel and what is the fire?”
The Young Turks, July 11, 2009

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