In the latest gotcha game of the primary season, online news outlet The Intercept reported that former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s campaign had contracted with ProCom, a New Jersey-based call center company, which in turn hired prison workers to make calls for the campaign that were duly noted as such. Women incarcerated at the Dr. Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Oklahoma called California residents for the recent addition to the Democratic field and were paid a weekly salary of about $5.
Using prison laborers has been labeled and “exploitative” and “evil.” It’s unfair to call it either. At worst, it was a due diligence oversight. None of the campaign staffers knew about ProCom’s third-party vendors.
Mostly, this is an opportunity to understand prison labor and see what Mr. Bloomberg’s planning to do regarding prison reform.
Inmates want to work. About 91% of them have prison jobs; many more wait on lists. It banishes idleness and makes them feel valued and effective. Much of it can be skill-building. Research shows that inmates employed by private companies like ProCom get jobs more quickly when they discharge from prison than ones who don’t.
But they should be paid more than $20 per month. This situation with Bloomberg reveals the real problem with prison labor when it’s contracted to companies outside the corrections system, namely that much of the money paid to incarcerated employees gets siphoned off by the state. Procom pays out the minimum wage to the women making calls to Bloomberg. The entity that whittles it down to pennies per day is the State of Oklahoma, which happens to be the biggest incarcerator in the country due to their grossly high rate of locking up women like the workers at the heart of this story. The solution here isn’t taking back prison jobs; it’s taking the government out of prison wages.
Rather than apologizing and retreating from prison labor, the campaign should embrace these workers and seek to make their employment more just. It’s easy. They can find every woman in that facility that was doing this work, calculate her hours and multiply it by a living hourly wage and deposit it into her inmate trust account. It would be an authentic way to model a prison reform platform of raising wages for prison workers.
I’m sensitive to the arguments against inmate labor, namely that people in prison have little to no choice in whether to work or not, or to choose what type of work they do. People see it as forced labor that funnels profits to a company that shows little concern for workforce wellbeing.
But that’s not prison labor problem. That’s a prison problem. Prison itself is exploitative; guards make salaries well over 100 thousand dollars, and never mind the uneven bargaining power an inmate has. Being paid $1.75 per day to work in a kitchen was actually the fairest and safest transaction I entered into while incarcerated.
Bloomberg can be a candidate for single issue voters dedicated to justice reform. Judging by the humility he’s shown — Bloomberg just apologized for controversial stop and frisk policies that were implemented during his tenure as mayor — he can use this development to craft a platform on criminal justice that’s both progressive and pragmatic.
Of all the candidates, only Bloomberg has a proven record of hiring formerly incarcerated people through the Fortune Fellows program at his business, Bloomberg LP.
Despite not having hired people with criminal records, the rest of the democratic field seems to think they’re flawless on criminal justice reform. They’re far from it. An off-kilter question in the Democratic debate on Dec. 19 offered a chance for candidates to show similar modesty, confess their past sins. Two apologized for being harsh. But none of them backpedaled their regrettable pasts on criminal justice. They all have them.
Besides, insisting you haven’t done anything that requires forgiveness alienates the people who have. Admitting you’re wrong can endear them to you.
Cut Mike some slack. This isn’t a slavery scandal. It’s a springboard to salient ideas.
Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.