Saturday, July 19, 2003

COMMON SENSE (2003): Mandatory Minimums in Connecticut (Nothing has changed)


D E A L I N G   W I T H   T H E

L E G I S L A T U R E  O F C O N N E C T I C U T

And the continued unjust practice of imposing


Compiled from the writings of



Laws are not fixed in stone. We, as American Citizens, can improve, direct, and change the way we manage our country’s affairs.  We are allowed, legally, to make things better.  We are expected to build upon, to improve, and even to nullify the laws written in the past.  By law we are required to amend our mistakes.

There have been murmurs of discontent, not unlike the kind of subtle undulations upon the surface of the sea just before a storm.  There are signs that very soon, things may change. Opinions are shifting, minds progressing, people are beginning to rethink the status quo; for despite what you may have heard, things are very bad indeed.
The problems are blatant, though often ignored, for many wonder “just how can we change an institution that is so inherent to our collective way of life?”  No one can argue the task is not a difficult one.  But also, many would agree it is becoming increasingly important as well.
Look at the statistics: While the state of Connecticut spends around $9,000 per year on each of its public school students, it spends almost $27,000 annually on each of its nearly 20,000 incarcerated inmates.
Tough figures to justify, especially when one considers that incarceration in prison-alternative programs costs only around $5,000 per inmate. That is a savings of about $22,000 per year for only a single prisoner. A widespread doctrine of employment of such programs just might be the “shot in the arm” our ailing state budget and justice system need: less spending, greater rehabilitative results, and consequently, lower rates of recidivism, which means less people returning to prison; quid pro quo: less money spent housing future offenders. And so on, and so forth.[1]
The fiscal status of the DOC is a dire one. Though the state’s population has remained stable since 1980, and in the same time the crime rate has steadily decreased, the state’s prison population has increased fivefold.
The state prison matrix has simply been unable to keep up with the increase; and though the prison population continues to grow, the money to hire more Correctional Officers and to build more beds to accommodate the influx has simply run out.  Now inmates are sleeping on gymnasium floors, and the state’s budget continues to collapse. The dream is over, as is the post “tough on crime” honeymoon.
But there are murmurs of change.  People are beginning to look at the laws we have instituted and say “this isn’t working, we need to try something new.”
We have brains in our heads; this may be the moment to use them.
The best hope in correcting this corrections dilemma is to reconsider exactly who should be sent to prison in the first place. It is no secret that alternate forms of incarceration mean big savings for the state’s taxpayers, not to mention a probable “more just” justice system. As the system now stands, it is costing each of the state’s over 3 million households around $460 per year to run the DOC; our courts are clogged, prisons overflowing, injustice is rampant.
Recently, state legislators have begun to question the state’s current practice of what State Rep. Peter Villano calls “Warehousing human beings.”
One way some legislators believe can help clean up the justice system morass would be to grant judges greater flexibility in sentencing, allowing a judge to fashion a sentence appropriate to a particular offender and offense.
The mandatory minimum sentencing laws in place in Connecticut and other states have become notorious tools of injustice and a drain on taxpayers’ wallets.
A mandatory minimum sentence is a sentence that may not be reduced by a court under legislative authority. That means that where a judge normally has discretion as to choose a suitable punishment, taking into account mitigating factors specific to a certain incident, the judge’s hands become tied.
The mandatory sentence diminishes the judge’s inherent role, to dole out a sentence to each individual suspect, befitting of the circumstances surrounding the crime committed. Under a mandatory minimum sentence the punishment cannot fit the crime.
Historically, mandatory minimum sentences are a rarity.  It was not until the second half of the last century that mandatory minimum sentences became common practice.
First introduced as a response to the rise in drug activity, legislation soon latched on to mandatory minimums as a way of portraying a “tough” approach to dealing with crime. By the 21st Century, there were numerous mandatory minimum sentences on the books for a wide range of crimes.
The laws themselves have been thoroughly unscientific. The lengths of the mandated sentences often are not based on any empirical study, but rather are simply chosen on grounds that they “sound” strict.
People from all sectors of the criminal justice system have decried mandatory minimum sentences. As early as 1974, the American Bar Association said in its criminal justice policy, that it opposes, in principle, legislatively or administratively imposed mandatory minimum prison sentences. Recently, Supreme Court Justice Kennedy has publicly decried mandatory minimum sentences. (QUOTE) An (JUDGE RESIGNS QUOTE)
Chief Justice William Rehnquist called mandatory minimum sentences a good example of the law of unintended consequences. In 2002 Supreme Court Justice J. Breyer stated that mandatory minimums generally deny the judge the legal power to depart downward, no matter how unusual the special circumstances that call for leniency… they transfer sentencing power to prosecutors, who can determine sentences through the charges they decide to bring…they are rarely based upon empirical study.
Prior to leaving his final term, Michigan Governor John Engler signed a bill eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders. Before this action, Michigan was regarded as having the strictest drug laws in the nation.
Recently, many other states including Idaho, Maryland, and New York have begun to rethink mandatory minimum sentences as well.
Here in Connecticut, State Legislature passed an act concerning mandatory minimum sentences. The new act allows judges to deviate from the application of a mandatory minimum sentence, but only in cases involving first time drug offenders.
     The repeal of mandatory minimum sentencing policies would not only better serve the taxpayers and the state’s fiscal situation, but it would create a more “just” justice system.
     Legislators need to come up with an “outside of the box” approach to dealing with the current deficit. And we, as a society need to take a more proactive approach toward dealing with other people. Instead of giving up, we should seek to improve our collective existence. 
     Punishment should not be handed out in predetermined increments. As Judge Leon Higginbotham once said: We must remember we are not widgets or robots, but human beings. Defendants should be sentenced within the spectrum of what most judges would consider fair and reasonable.
     I’m not saying we should not be tough on crime, I’m simply saying that the punishment should fit the crime.

Simply put: mandatory minimums compromise justice by shifting sentencing discretion from judges to prosecutors

Mandatory minimum sentences completely eliminate a judge’s discretion when choosing an appropriate punishment for an offender. This curtailing of the courts traditional sentencing rights greatly undermines the integrity of the justice system as a whole. 
Under a mandatory minimum sentence, a judge must impose the set sentence without exception.  Any mitigating factors such as a defendant’s character, history, or specific circumstances that might otherwise call for a lesser sentence must be ignored. 
Because of this, mandatory minimum sentences are in conflict with the most basic notions of justice.  Under a mandatory minimum sentence the punishment cannot fit the crime.
Proponents of the deterrent role of sentencing suggest that if a person is punished for committing a crime, that person’s punishment will become an example for others.  If one person is punished for a crime, perhaps others will think twice before also committing crimes.  By the same account, the idea of deterrence follows the theory that the person punished will also be discourage from committing more crimes in the future.
Those in favor of mandatory minimum sentences declare that such sentencing provisions work toward the notions of deterrence.  Supporters contend that criminal activity will decline if potential offenders are concerned they will serve time in prison if they violate the law.
However, Agencies including the Maryland State Bar Association have asserted that this school of though is flawed since most potential offenders are completely unaware of which crimes actually carry mandatory minimum sentences.  Also, many crimes are committed on impulse without much forethought, which further detracts from the intended goal of deterrence. 
A recent bill presented before the Idaho State Legislature states that mandatory minimum sentencing, originally intended to create more consistency in sentencing and reduce sentencing disparity, has severely limited the discretion of the courts, and in doing so force judges to impose punishment inappropriate to the offense or to the circumstances of the offender.
Mandatory minimum sentences fail to create uniformity in sentencing because they force judges to take cases that differ greatly in circumstance and treat them exactly the same.
Studies have shown that mandatory minimums do nothing to end sentencing disparity, but in some cases actually intensify the problem.
The Idaho bill goes states that mandatory minimum sentences create the inability of the court to tailor punishment to fit a particular defendant’s circumstances and the specific circumstances of a case.
Judicial discretion is a key element in diverting some offenders away from repeat criminal activity. Mandatory sentences remove the flexibility judges have in determining which measure of rehabilitation an offender would benefit most from.
In Connecticut Mandatory minimum sentences continue to cause a strain on our already lean state fiscal resources.  They overburden our correctional facilities with persons who would more suitably be punished through means other than jail time.
Prosecutors, some of the few people who are actually in favor of mandatory minimums, have complained that if mandatory minimum sentencing laws were repealed, they would lose a valuable bargaining chip to compel the accused to plea bargain rather than risk taking the case to trial.
 A major criticism of mandatory minimum sentencing practice focuses on the fact that this type of sentencing shifts discretion from neutral third-party judges to adversarial and biased prosecutors.
Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer has stated that mandatory minimum sentences permit the prosecutor, not the judge, to select the sentence by choosing to charge, or not to charge, a violation of a statute that carries a mandatory prison term.
Prosecutors can use their own discretion in choosing what they deem to be a fitting charge. Under mandatory minimum sentencing, they alone possess the power to reduce the sentence by lowering the charge.
The main problem with this shifting of power from judges to prosecutors is that while a judge’s sentencing actions take place under public scrutiny, a prosecutor’s charging and plea-bargaining actions take place under secretive behind-closed-doors circumstances, and so are unreviewable. 
In this light, the notion of checks and balances has been dealt a double whammy, first by striping the judiciary of its role to specify sentences, then by passing that role on to the prosecutors of the executive branch whose actions cannot be evaluated for abuse.
Acknowledging budget woes and inequities in sentencing state legislators and officials say they have begun to re-evaluate the rationale behind mandatory minimum sentences.
State Sen. Martin Looney D-11, explained that, while the state’s population has remained stable over the past two decades, the prison population has tripled. The increase, due largely to the imposition of mandatory minimum sentencing, has led to the state’s now astronomical spending on corrections.
“I think there is the recognition that we need to build some greater flexibility into the system,” Looney said. “That may be one of the few silver linings of the budget cloud that we’re looking at now. Sometimes in difficult times, people become a little bit more creative in looking at things that they might not have looked at before.”
According to the Connecticut Department of Corrections, the state spends almost $600 million a year on the incarceration of only slightly over 19,000 inmates.
Each day the state spends a total of about $1.6 million to house inmates in its 18 correctional facilities. Currently it costs approximately $26,955 to house each inmate per year.
The state has asked the DOC to trim nearly $6 million from its budget; the department could lose 164 employees due to the cuts.
Looney suggests that a good way of lifting some of the state’s financial burden would be to return greater discretion to judges when it comes to sentencing, allowing judges to dictate sentences, which more appropriately suit a particular case.
“I think we need to recognize that a judge is appointed for his or her judgment, experience, understanding of the law, and how to apply the law,” Looney said. “We have to trust that discretion and allow the judge to fashion a remedy that is true justice.”
Looney went on to say that under mandatory minimums judges become bureaucrats, rather than judges because they are not functioning as an arbiter in the traditional sense.
Police Chief Robert Nolan says that mandatory minimums nullify the qualifications of our judges and detract from the distinct and specific nature of each case.
“My feeling from day one is that if we appoint judges I would hope that they are appointed on the basis that they are qualified,” Nolan said. “Every case should be a case unto itself. I don’t see a case where you can write a law that can cover all situations.”
Nolan stated that mitigating factors should always be taken into consideration during sentencing and that judges must be allowed to consider them.
“Mandatory minimum sentences take that away from the judge,” Nolan said. “It’s not democratic because every single case is different.”
“We have to focus on the particular crime, and the particular individual before us,” Looney said. “Hamstringing judges by so many mandatory minimums undermines their capacity to really do true justice.”
State Rep. Peter Villano expressed a need to put an end to the practice of simply “warehousing” offenders. He recognized a need to crack down on soft judges, but acknowledged that situations arise where mandatory minimum sentences become a tool of injustice.
State Sen. George “Doc” Gunther R-21, stated that without mandatory minimums, judges are free to sentence offenders however they see fit. He expressed a concern that, unchecked judges might be too lenient in their sentencing.
Looney stated that situations such as this should be avoided due to the judicial review practices already in place.
State Rep. Cameron Staples agreed that mandatory minimum sentences seem to be less of a benefit and more of a hindrance.
“We have to be smart,” said Staples. He went on to state that a “simple slogan” approach toward sentencing is insufficient and defective. He pointed out that while more money is going toward prisons less is being spent on education.
“It’s a damning statistic,” Looney said.
Nolan suggested that more money be spent on law enforcement rather than incarceration.
“We should be trying to be proactive to the problem rather than reactive,” Nolan said.
In Nolan’s opinion the state should explore alternate incarceration options as a cost cutting approach. He added that during his career, he has seen many people sent to prison who would be better suited for an alternative form of rehabilitation.
According to state agencies, the average cost for placing an inmate in an alternate incarceration program is around $5,000 per year, $22,000 less than the annual cost of housing an inmate in prison.
“We need to provide more support for alternative forms of incarceration,” Looney said. “We’ve made some strides in that direction in recent years, but we need to make more.”
Staples also expressed the need for greater use of alternatives to jail more appropriate to the individual.
“We’re not breaking the cycle,” Staples said.
Each official pointed to potential savings and greater rehabilitative effects of alternate forms of incarceration as reason enough to restore judges with more leeway in sentencing.
“We need to build as much flexibility into the system as we possibly can and allow judges to really deal with the facts before them,” Looney said. “That’s one of the purposes of a pre-sentence investigation before sentencing… to get a full picture. If you don’t allow the judge to use that full picture in the sentencing determination, you’re undermining the pre-sentence investigation.”
Prosecutors have complained that if mandatory minimum sentencing laws were repealed they would lose a valuable bargaining chip to compel the accused to plea bargain rather than risk taking the case to trial.
“The mandatory minimum sentences actually often become a bargaining tool,” Looney said. “There have been cases of people actually pleading guilty, and having it come out later on that they were in fact innocent. They recognized there was a danger of conviction if they went to trial and they wind up accepting the plea bargaining because they think it is a smaller risk than going to trial would have been.”
Looney called it “an unfortunate comment on what happens in the criminal justice system sometimes.”
“The statue of Lady Justice has a blindfold on, and there is a reason for it.” Nolan said. “It is supposed to be justice for all. Prosecutors, judges, police officers, we all need to remember that.”

[1] In an article by Aaron Ment, the chief court administrator of the state’s Judicial Branch, it is suggested that alternate forms of incarceration would not only be more successful in reforming inmates but would also lighten the state’s heavy fiscal burden.
Jack Cole, a retired narcotics officer with 26 years experience in the field, has expressed the need for greater use of these prison alternatives. Cole called current drug policy “institutionalized racism,” citing statistics to illustrate his claim. He said that while 72% of drug users in the United States are white, and only 13.5% are black, blacks account for 35% of all drug arrests.  He said that the stats are equally disproportionate in prosecutions, convictions, and severity of sentencing.

Origins and Futures (2003)



A   C ON C I S E    P R I M E R   D E A L I N G   W I T H   T H E

Foundations   and   motivations   of   the   Prison   System   of

T H E   S T A T E   O F   C O N N E C T I C U T 

B O T H    M Y T H O L O G I C A L    &    A C T U A L

With special emphasis placed upon the topics of

R A C I S M   &   C A P I T A L I S T I C   G A I N

A s   a n   I m p e t u s   f o r   p u b l i c   p o l i c y .


…But we Pray to god that he would Send forth his Good Spirit into your harts and Remind you of your Duty and make you the Instermints of Binding up the Brokenharted and of Proclaiming Liberty to the captives and the opening of the Prison to them that are Bound…

-Petition of 1780 by slaves for the abolition of slavery in Connecticut.

He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners…
-Isaiah 61:1

The prison system of our nation was born of capitalistic intentions. In fact, if you look closely, it is more than apparent that the prison system of today is nothing more than the evolutionary spin-off of the prohibited practice of slavery. Much of our criminal law, though marketed as policy designed to protect our nation’s citizenry, is at its core both racist and capitalistic
Look at the statistics, and you’ll see that a considerably disproportionate number of blacks are behind bars, you’ll see that the structuring of our state’s drug sentencing laws are designed to penalize blacks and other minorities more drastically than whites. The most glaring examples of this are due largely to “war on drugs,” which concentrates greatly on urban areas heavily populated by minority groups, despite the fact that much drug use occurs predominantly in suburban white areas.
Look past the smoke and mirrors, the political marketing and “tough on crime” rhetoric being heaved by our nation’s political right and “left,” and one can easily see there is currently a committed effort, on the parts of many politicians and private industry economists, to return the prison system to the dollar generating enterprise it was in the 1800s. Unfortunately, those in favor of such restructuring pay little mind to the atrocious conditions of the earlier system, and the human cost necessary to yield such profits.
However, more than simply attempting to turn the overcrowding crisis into a self-sustaining endeavor, and more optimistically, a profit generating enterprise, in some lights it actually appears that there may be an active attempt by some to further foster the endemic prison-overcrowding crisis in order to gain both public support for such change as well as create a greater prison work-force.


An August 2001 article from the National Center for Policy Analysis’ titled “Prisoners Spell Dollars for Communities” cites some interesting ways in which some communities have been able to capitalize on the recent prison construction boom:

Most federal formula-grant programs…are based at least partially on census numbers—and prisoners are counted just like everyone else. Some states…also use census statistics to parcel out state tax revenues and other funds. Never mind the fact that the incarcerated get little benefit from the roads, parks and services the grants pay for.[1]

The article goes on to explain how some communities have used prison populations to boost their total population numbers to better qualify for grants, in some small communities the addition of prison populations more than doubled their total population counts. The article cites other “benefits” created by building prisons in some communities:

Also prisoners have little or no income, they depress per capita wages. This makes prison-hosting towns eligible for additional cash from federal and state anti-poverty programs…Heavily minority inner cities lose government funds when their residents are transferred to rural communities and locked up. Furthermore, inmates are counted for legislative apportionment and redistricting—even though they can’t vote. So in states such as New York, the prison boom has helped to shift political muscle from minority-dominated inner cities to rural areas dominated by whites.1

Taking facts such as this into consideration, it becomes clear that if the corrections-industrial complex could effectively formulate a self-sufficient prison system and foster pre-existent racist trends in law enforcement, the benefits for politicians and the country’s economic elite continue to compound themselves. A 1999 Perspective magazine articles addresses this prospect:

Prison Labor is inherently prone to political corruption. On the most basic level, it produces a profit incentive for politicians to build prisons, increase arrests, and extend sentences. Riding the “tough on crime” attitude in America and a public demand to cut prisoner benefits and programs, companies that utilize prison labor are fueling the prison boom in the United States. This new aspect of the prison-industrial complex show itself in many examples: questionable campaign contributions, political favors, and the movement of individuals back and forth from political posts to managerial posts in a prison industry.[2]


Look at the promotional pamphlets distributed at the gates of Old Newgate Prison State Park and you’ll see that the myths of three hundred years ago still live to this day:

Enter…into the world of convicted horse thieves, counterfeiters, and murderers…. At night prisoners were confined underground in an abandoned copper mine. During the day they labored within these stone walls to earn their keep.[3]

An older Promotional Pamphlet from the 1980s is even further laden with evident untruths:

Prisoners were kept in the mine at night, and in total darkness. Yet, some of the inmates preferred this to the cells above ground as it enabled them to move about more freely and to talk to other prisoners…[4]

The true story of Newgate Prison is a grim account of the capitalistic motivations behind the inception of America’s modern Prison System, which paved the way for programs involving prison labor, including so-called “prisoner leasing” for centuries to come.
The Newgate mines (originally called Simsbury copper mine) were first mined in 1707, and were initially owned by private landowners, including a governor of Massachusetts. But soon the private enterprise proved too costly to continue.5 Soon the mines came into the ownership of the Colony of Connecticut.
The colony of Connecticut first used Newgate as a prison in December of 1773, and in October of 1776, Newgate became the first state prison in the newly established United States of America. Prior to the use of Newgate, prison sentences as punishment were virtually non-existent in the New World and Europe.
Prison was where the accused awaited trial. Generally, punishments were administered in the form of corporal or capital punishment, public humiliation, or the imposing of a monetary fine. Floggings, disfigurement, branding, were all accepted forms of physical punishment. Public humiliation was achieved by utilizing the stocks or pillory.[5] However, someone must have realized that a working prisoner is worth more than a dead or wounded one.
Well before Newgate’s inauguration as a prison, the mining enterprise had proved unprofitable. Connecticut, having a relatively small number of slaves, found it difficult to find employees to mine for the local smiths. A Connecticut legislative committee suggested that sentenced criminals be sent to the mines, instead of imposing traditional forms of punishment. In 1773, the first inmate descended into the mine. [6]

[Newgate] marks a radical departure in punishment. In many respects it foreshadows what is to come…Newgate houses both violent and non-violent offenders, and the only goal of punishment is retribution…there are no cells; men women and children are all thrown together… The prison does not generate enough money through copper-mining and tries other moneymaking ventures…Nothing works…Eventually, it becomes too expensive to maintain and is replaced by a new institution in Wethersfield.[7]

Eventually, it seems, even with the newly created free labor force, Newgate lacked the ability to create profits. The legislature’s experiment had backfired, but by now the justice systems of both the state and country had come to regard lengthy prison sentences as the preferred form of punishment.

The opening of the Wethersfield State Prison in September of 1827 marked another landmark in the evolution of Connecticut’s prison system. Modeled after the newly designed “Auburn System” of the then considered state-of-the-art Auburn prison in New York State, Wethersfield represented a departure from the slapdash organization of Newgate.
The Auburn System was itself a deviation from the so-called Pennsylvania System, which was formulated around the belief that Solitary Confinement was the only effective form of rehabilitation, as it forced inmates to “repent their sins and consider their deviant acts.”2 Under this system, inmates labored alone in their cells, however this type of prison industry soon proved exceptionally unprofitable. A similar experiment performed at Auburn prison in New York State, proved exceptionally disastrous and was deemed an unequivocal failure as many of the inmates became insane from their confinement.
The system, for which Auburn eventually became known, moved away from solitary confinement. However, though the inmates ate and worked together, they were not allowed to ever look at or speak with one another. If they broke the rules they were physically punished.2 The “military-like model” was instituted not only to “keep prisoners in-line” but also to provide for more profitable and efficient prison-industry.
This system, the foundation for Connecticut’s Wethersfield Prison, proved less expensive than the Pennsylvania system, and state’s began to see greater profits being made from their prison enterprises; however, most prison industries still did not make enough money to cover the expenses of running the prison as a whole.
The mid to late 1800s marked another dramatic change in the way prisons were run. This period provides the most visible examples of states capitalizing on prison-labor, as well as the most blatant role of racism in the history of the prison-industrial complex thus far.

Following the civil war, the South found itself in dire need to replace the former workforce of newly emancipated slaves. No longer able to legally steal/breed a captive labor force, Southerners needed to come up with new ways of supplying themselves with cheap labor. Up until then, states had been unable to successfully utilize prison-labor making the prison system self sufficient, let alone achieving their ultimate goals of transforming the prison system into a profit generating enterprise. The administrative costs had continually eclipsed the money made from prison-industries.
But at this point, the prison system and private industry began to coordinate their efforts, creating the first profitable prison-industries in history. The practice became know as “prison leasing.”

Article XIII, Section 1 of the constitution of the United States asserts that “Neither slavery not involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States…” There is the loophole. Contrary to popular belief, slavery is still legal in the United States of America; there are now simply conditions.
In a November 1995 article written by Pete Dupont, former governor of Delaware (a state which hosted public whippings as a form of legal punishment up until the 1950s), and then Policy Chairman for the National Center for Policy Analysis, the author laments the good old days of a profit yielding prison system.

It was not always this way. In the last century, prisons earned a major part of their daily cost by leasing convict labor to private employers. In 1885, three-fourths of prison inmates were involved in productive labor, the majority working for private employers under contract and leasing arrangements.[8]

But Dupont gives little insight as to the specifics of the prison-leasing movement of the 1800s. This practice, which is explored more in Section III of this essay, was little more than a circumnavigation of the banning of slavery by the emancipation proclamation.
In prison leasing, states gave up total control of its inmate population to the highest bidder. This practice was especially popular in the southern areas of this country where former slave owners now had no way running their businesses with the luxury of a cheap labor force. After the institution of prison leasing, states had nothing to lose by committing another prisoner to incarceration, on the contrary it had everything to gain. More prisoners meant more profits, and since prisons were then just as racially imbalanced as they are today, one more prisoner for the most part meant one less free Negro.

Unfortunately, the crime of which many of these neo-slaves of the 1800s had been convicted of was simply being black. Many convictions were based upon “crimes” as dubious as “vagrancy.” This racist trend continues in many ways today with a racially biased law enforcement community, and laws unfairly weighed against minorities.
But the halcyon days of comfortable prison profiteering eventually came to and end during the great depression. Due to pressures from labor union““s and competing businesses, Congress implements laws, which made it more difficult for states and private industries to profit from prison labor. For the following forty years, prisoners would labor for government agencies and non-profits exclusively (See section II. History). However, by the 1980s most of these laws had been rescinded and the country began to move back toward the “slaves of the state” ideologies of the 1880s.[9]
Today, proponents of prison labor include business leaders and corrections administrators. The latter is no surprise when folks like Pete Dupont state that legislation should “Let prisons ‘profit’ from accepting these contracts. Provide monetary incentives to prisons and their wardens for leading their institutions to self-sufficiency.”1 As for the business leaders, there is little doubt as to what their motivations are.
By implementing prison labor, private businesses profit in a number of ways. The voluminous NCPA report, “Factories Behind Bars,” explains the many benefits for private industries that utilize prison labor. The study explains that privately run prison industries boast greater productivity levels than those run by the state.
The study shows how states can profit from privately run prison labor. The study explains that with an average wage of $5.00 an hour, each prisoner can generate an income of about $10,000 per year, most of which will go back to the state.[10]

The study also mentions “polls show that a majority of business leaders, who might be expected to object to prison industries as unfair competition, actually favor such programs.” Yet there is no explanation offered as to why they are in favor of the programs. Here are some probable reasons why they are:

  • Prison labor is not protected by federal safety and health standards, nor is it covered by National Labor Relations policies.

  • Private industries are spared the expenses of health, unemployment, and workers compensation benefits, and they are free to hire and fire inmate employees at will, with none of the messy red tape.

  • By utilizing prison labor, corporations needed pay competitive wages to their inmate employees (for detailed examples of this fact see APENDIX A).

  • Prisoners cannot organize politically or unionize.

But, for the most part, prison labor does not usually compete with our domestic industries; rather prison labor is usually composed of the work most companies already complete in other nations. Principally, prison labor competes with third-world sweatshops (See APPENDIX A).
Prison researchers have stated that most inmates will be hard pressed to find work on the “outside” in the same areas in which they had worked while in prison.
“A garment sewer in prison has little to look forward to in the garment industry outside the walls, beside low wage and exploitation; never mind that most garment shops are located overseas.”[11]
The Perspectives Magazine article agrees: “…while prison labor mimics working conditions in the developing world and can compete with overseas production, the fields in which the inmates are gaining experience may not hold jobs for them on the American market once they leave.”2
It is statements like these that, if true, effectively take the wind out of any claims of rehabilitative benefit such working environments will bequeath an ex-prisoner (file “rehabilitation” along with “tough on crime” under “sounds good”).
Another benefit companies stand to gain by moving operations out of the developing world and into American prisons is that they will then qualify to place the desirable “Made in U.S.A.” label on their products. As one corporate bigwig mentioned, “we’re employing Americans, they just happen to be incarcerated.”8
In fact, some former New Jersey inmates revealed that their duties while working in a prison shop included removing Honduran tags in garments and replacing them with ones that read “Made in USA.”8

Though promising to private industry, the NCPA study demonstrates some of the problems private businesses might encounter while utilizing prison labor:

One of the difficulties of creating jobs for prisoners is that many of them are illiterate or semiliterate, or have low IQs, but champions of inmate labor are confident such jobs could be created. The federal system has the best prospects for high rates of payback because many of the prisoners are there for crimes typically committed by more intelligent criminals like counterfeiting, kidnapping and drug smuggling.5

There is no mention in the study of educating these illiterate prisoners, for example, teaching them to read, which may be a necessary aspect of true rehabilitation. I think the reference to “more intelligent criminals” speaks for itself.

The NCPA study also explains that “Prisoners Overwhelmingly Prefer Work to the Tedium of Prison Life.” This statement brings up an interesting point. It is the policy of the Connecticut DOC that any inmate who is offered a job in the prison must accept the job or otherwise be confined to a segregation unit, i.e. solitary confinement. As one article put it “Boredom is a powerful motivator in prison.”7 A possible hypothesis would be that prison jobs do not simply offer a break from the tedium of “prison life” (see 23 hour lockdown in closet sized cells), but rather the tedious nature of life in prison is designed to serve as motivation to get prisoners to work. Looked at from this perspective, the policy of confinement to cells becomes little more than a cunningly subtle psychological whip, as motivating as any physical lashing.


o    In 1998, MicroJet paid convict machinists only $7 per hour, as compared with the $30 per hour they would have had to have paid union machinists. Also, MicroJet received a 56,000 square foot building rent free with Washington State footing the maintenance fees. [12]

o    Lockhart Technologies, Inc. (manufacturer of circuit boards for IBM, Compaq, and Dell) closed its Austin, Texas plant and moved operations to a Texas prison run by Private Prison giant Wackenhut Corp. without consulting with organized labor. Joe Gunn, president of Texas AFL-CIO called the move “absolute indentured slavery. [Wackenhut] puts people to work under conditions we criticize China for.” But Lockhart defended itself by stating that there was no union in the county in which the prison was located. 9

o    Escrod Industries moved to South Carolina only after it dropped its plans to operate out of Mexico. The reason for the change was that Mexican labor could not compete in cost with American prison labor. South Carolina had further sweetened the deal by granting the company a $250,000 “equipment subsidy” and offering industrial space at below market rates.2

o    Oregon officials urged Nike (a company notorious for its use of sweatshop labor) to relocate its Indonesia operations into Oregon Prisons, stating, “We can offer competitive prison labor.”8

o    Jostens, Inc. a company that manufactures graduation gowns, employed female inmates to perform duties liked to the production work usually carried out in third-world countries. One company executive was quoted as saying, “Keep it simple- put the least complex sewing jobs you have inside the prison…”2

o    New Jersey inmates revealed that their duties while working in a prison shop included removing Honduran tags in garments and replacing them with ones that read “Made in USA.”8

[1] Pete Dupont, NCPA: “Prisoners Spell Dollars for Communities”. 8.9.01.
[2] Josh Levin, “Uncle Tom’s cell: Prison labor gives a market face to an old idea—slavery” Perspective Magazine Feb. 1999.
[3] New-Gate Prison & Copper Mine.  Connecticut Historical Commission. (2003?)
[4] Old New-Gate Prison and Copper Mine. Connecticut Historical Commission. (1980s?)
[5] History of Prisons.
[6] Prison Leasing, Prison Industry and the work ethic.
[7]  The Old Newgate Prison, Connecticut. 360degrees.
[8] National Center for Policy Analysis: “Should Prisoners be Allowed to Work?” 11.29.95.
[9] The Costal Post, July 1998: “Prison Labor: Crime Still Doesn’t Pay”
[10] National Center For Policy Analysis: “Factories Behind Bars”
[11] Karen Miller, “Prison Labor: Some facts and Issues” 2000.