Why chain gangs can be a good thing

For a lot of people, the  idea of putting prisoners to work in ” chain gangs” evokes images of  Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke.  Or maybe Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s no holds-barred  programs in Arizona – where even female inmates are shackled on the job site.   So I was  happy to see the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office  Community Labor Force  get some publicity in today’s Washington Post. 

A number of jail inmates I’ve worked with have taken part in the Fairfax program, which allows  non-violent offenders to  be assigned to work crews that do jobs like  landscaping, clean-up and  trash removal around the community.  In return they get time off for good behavior, plus the chance to do  useful work and develop employment skills.  The article noted that these workers also serve a need, like  helping the budget-stretched Virginia Department of Transportation provide services it could not otherwise afford.  They also manage to do it without  handcuffs or chains, and unless you’re familiar with prison garb, you might not even recognize their green jumpsuits and orange vests.  As one worker told the Post reporter with some pride, “We get a lot of people asking for our business cards…” 

Sadly, some of the responses to this article were predictable, with a few commenters decrying the work program as “slave labor” and others talking about how it takes jobs from unemployed people to reward criminals.  It got me wondering if the strong reaction is  due  to seeing these offenders out in the community.  After all, most state and federal prisons require employees to work and pay them a pittance.  Jail employees often work as trustees in the kitchen or in sanitation, and no one gripes about that.  

Regardless, my experience with offenders in these programs has been largely positive. In fact, I think this type of work-release should be a mandatory part of most  sentences.  Here’s why:

It’s constructive.  The punitive part of incarceration is being locked away and having to think about what you’ve done.  It’s the collateral damage people don’t see that really hampers an individual’s ability to  lead a productive life post-release;  the loss of employment and a place in the larger world, erosion of skills and community ties and the brain fog that come with days without purpose.   Work-release programs can help temper this decline and do much to prepare offenders for eventual release and/or highlight issues they might face.  I  see it in  my working students —  that energy that comes from accomplishment and the renewed feeling that they can actually achieve something.

It encourages reliability/real world accountability.  This isn’t play work. It’s the real thing.   Just as with a real job, if you screw up, you’re essentially fired.  One of my students found this out when she was caught with a cellphone in her purse at the animal shelter where she was on work-release.   She not only lost that job, but all the good time she had accrued as well.  Plus she found herself back in a cell all day long.

It is not slave labor, but rather a way to re pay a debt to society.   With the annual cost of incarceration running   $20,000 plus per person, any way offenders can offset this bill should be considered.  Currently, about 80 percent of prisoners do some sort of work for just this reason.   Plus “good time” days mean less time inside, so by working,  the individual is actually earning a shorter sentence.  

It’s actual employment experience.   For some inmates, in fact, work-release  may even be the only legitimate employment they’ve ever had.  In every class I teach, I always have a couple of students who quietly confess that they have never held a job in their adult lives.  Whether this is because of  lack of opportunity, skills, education, or simply that crime was easier, the best way to turn their lives around –  and reduce the risk of their returning  – is to start building real world experience and references.

It is a net benefit for society.   Face it, a job you have to go to jail to get  is not a reward.  No one willingly trades their freedom to pick up trash along the highway.  In fact, many of the jobs offenders fill are often ones no one else wants.  The inmates who were bussed in to clear snow from Fairfax County school sidewalks this past winter, for example, were used as a last resort only after school officials had exhausted appeals to staff, parents and the larger community.

Readers, what’s your experience?   Are work-release programs worthwhile?  Have they been useful to you?

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Filed under companies hiring ex-offenders, employment assistance ex-offenders, employment ex-offenders, job training, starting over

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