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State Prison Systems Failing to Provide Meaningful Programming

By Casey J. Bastian

There are around 1.25 million prisoners in state prison systems. Prior to incarceration, most were poor, uneducated, disadvantaged or marginalized. But wait-lists for prison education and other programming indicate prisoners desire to better themselves. Yet prison systems are failing to provide the tools needed for post-incarceration success. Instead, prisoner labor is exploited to run the lockups that cage and keep operating costs down.

That is the takeaway from a report released on September 2, 2022, by the Prison Policy Initiative. Using data from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics 2016 Survey of Prison Inmates, the report reveals how little state prison systems focus on setting prisoners up to succeed upon release. For that, prisoners need education and relevant job skills or vocational training. But prisons fail to offer these in any meaningful way. While prisoners want to be productive in prison, they are not allowed to choose “relevant, stimulating, and/or safe work assignments,” the study concludes.

Prisoners are given a choice: Provide menial labor to keep the prison running or face discipline. Worse, the average pay for prisoner labor is typically pennies per hour – if there is any pay at all. A prison work assignment is the most common “programming” in state prison systems, the report notes. Nearly 58% of prisoners have one. Of those, 71% took the assignment only because they were required to. Most are menial jobs in janitorial or food service, groundskeeping, maintenance, or similar duties. These assignments are not designed to provide job skills or personal development.

But this is not what prisoners value. Of those who chose to work, the  “very important” reasons include learning new skills (71%), earning money (54%), relieving boredom (51%), or earning good time towards early release (45%).

Most of these very important reasons aren’t realized. The work is not likely to provide new skills. Even when there is a national prison industries program, such as Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program(“PIECP”), less than 5,400 prisoners nationwide participated as of 2021. Only one-third of the 1.25 million state prisoners reported participation in job training and one in five “were prematurely cut off from their program before finishing.”

While a prisoner might earn local prevailing wages at a PIECP job, most prison industries pay around $1 per hour, still better than regular prison job assignments, which pay $.13 to $.52 per hour, except in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas; there is no pay at all in those six states, which together housed 30% of all state prisoners in the U.S. This is allowed because the 13th Amendment’s prohibition against slavery has an “exception clause” that exempts those confined for punishment.

The problem extends beyond prison walls to the 1.25 million families of those state prisoners. Prior to incarceration, more than 61% were their household’s primary wage earner. From any paltry prison wages are deducted court fees, restitution and child support. This leaves nothing for “basic necessities like medical visits, hygiene items, and phone calls,” much less sending money home, the report notes. Quite often, child support obligations accumulate while incarcerated, imposing a greater burden upon release.

Practices like these leave prisoners without the experience of earning a decent wage, paying bills, and saving money while incarcerated – experiences that could only be beneficial when they are released.

Concerning education provided by state prison systems, the report found only 43% of prisoners had participated in educational programming. Nearly 125,000 prisoners said they “have never been offered the chance.” Another 11% said they weren’t qualified or allowed to attend educational programming. More than 7% said they could not get into a program at all or were wait-listed.

Worse, prisoners face “frequent, excessive, and often arbitrary punishment” for alleged violations of rules like those mandating forced labor. These disciplinary actions can result in a form of “triple jeopardy”: The prison discipline committee puts the prisoner in segregation, where he then loses good-time credit, and the disciplinary action can later be used against him at parole hearings. More than 53% of all prisoners were written up or found guilty of such a rule violation in 2016. Many were sent to solitary confinement for even minor infractions, a practice the U.N. considers torture if, as often happens, it lasts longer than 15 days.

The report is quite clear that programs offered by prisons which increase skills, confidence, and mental health “reduce recidivism by increasing the opportunity cost of committing crimes.” In other words, you have to give people something to lose when they re-enter society, else they have no stake in playing by society’s rules.

Costs associated with educating a prisoner are much less than the cost of incarcerating him. If our prison systems continue to turn people back to the streets without giving them tools for success, we shouldn’t be surprised if they recidivate. See: The State Prison Experience: Too Much Drudgery, Not Enough Opportunity, Prison Policy Initiative (2022).