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Tommy's Jobs Program

Gov. Tommy Thompson recently unveiled his startling plan to put inmates to work in Wisconsin prisons. Thompson wants to allow private businesses to construct production facilities inside state prisons and employ inmates as laborers.

The Governor assures us that his plan will accomplish several laudable goals.  Instead of sitting idle in prison, inmates can learn skills that will help them land jobs on the outside after their release.  Merely becoming accustomed to the discipline of getting up and going to work each morning will be a step in the right direction for many prisoners, Thompson reasons. Furthermore,  the Department of Corrections would be able to seize the wages paid to inmates and apply those funds to offset the cost of operating the prisons. The Governor estimates that his program could raise $50 million per year from inmate labor.

Thompson's plan disturbingly resembles the prison-labor practices in China and other countries whose human-rights records Wisconsin should not seek to emulate, and the plan has been roundly criticized on that point. But the purely racial implications of the Governor's plan, which have been over-looked by the mainstream media, are striking as well.

The unemployment rate for African Americans in Wisconsin, as in the rest of the nation, is much higher than the overall unemployment rate. This is true for a number of reasons, but among the  prominent is that many white employers suffer under the burden of racist stereotypes and hesitate to hire Black workers.  African American job applicants are often denied even low-wage, menial jobs unless those jobs attract no white applicants.  And Blacks receive differential treatment in the distribution of promotions and raises. Young Blacks, especially those who don't adopt middle-class (white) mannerisms and speech patterns, suffer the most extensive discrimination, often being shut out of the job market completely.

Not surprisingly, some of the African Americans who are denied opportunity in the labor market seek their fortunes elsewhere. Drug trafficking, prostitution and other illegal enterprises ensnare many Blacks who have become convinced that  they stand no chance of success in the white-dominated corporate world.  Because imprisonment is a major occupational hazard in illicit enterprises, African Americans make up a disproportionately large share of the prisoners in our prisons.  Gov. Thompson now proposes a solution to all those problems.  After we get people locked away in prison, he says  "then we'll give'em jobs!"

Of course, the Governor's proposal couldn't possibly be more wrong headed.  If the people who are now in prison had been able to get jobs on the outside, many of them wouldn't have ended up in prison in the first place.  So why wait until people are in prison before giving them jobs?  A jobs program to provide meaningful employment for young African Americans outside of prison would reduce crime and help young Blacks pry open the door to success, thus benefiting society as a whole. But Thompson, a Republican who bills himself a fiscal conservative, has never proposed anything resembling that.

I can think of a couple reasons why the Governor might find it appropriate to propose a jobs program only for those among the state's poor who happen to be in prison. For one thing, Wisconsin law specifically prohibits prisoners from forming labor unions. It seems Thompson is stealing a page from the government of Mexico, which has sought to attract American corporations by promising to prevent workers from organizing unions. Secondly, Thompson proposes to confiscate the wages that companies pay prisoners and use the money to pay the cost of running the prison system. Apparently, Thompson likes the idea of providing jobs for African Americans only if they don't get to keep their wages.

Blacks will be hurt by Thompson's new program in yet another way.  A company that builds a factory inside a prison will obviously not be building that same factory on the outside. The jobs that Thompson's plan gives to prisoners would otherwise go to workers on the streets. Since African Americans tend to be the last hired and first fired, any outside jobs sacrificed to create jobs inside the prisons will likely result in Blacks,  rather than whites, being laid off. The prison-labor program would therefore feed on itself, making jobs even harder to come by for African Americans on the outside and stacking ever higher the obstacles to success that result in so many of our young people ending up behind bars.

A jobs program that would lower the unemployment rate for young Blacks in this state is sorely needed. Leave it to Tommy Thompson to defeat every purpose of such a plan by adding the crackpot caveat that someone seeking employment must commit a crime in order to benefit from the jobs program.

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