From hard time to hard work

By Patt Morrison Published:

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By Patt Morrison

He said it, all right: We do not need more people from foreign countries coming in taking the jobs of Americans. .... I say let the prisoners pick the fruits.

Thats Republican congressmanDana Rohrabacher of Huntington Beach, Calif., one of those fellows for whom the word colorful seems wimpy.

Goes to show you, I thought at first. This is what happens to a man who parties with Sammy Hagar. Or perhaps he wiped out surfing and got whacked in the head by his own longboard. Or maybe hes just fried with fatigue from taking care of his baby triplets without the help of a nanny with a dubious green card.

Prison labor? Thats not 21st century America, is it? It reeks of the gulag -- Siberia, China, political prisoners. Its Cagney and Bogie in horizontal stripes. Its breakin rocks in the hot sun. Its Cool Hand Luke and chain gangs.

And then I thought: Has anyone asked the prisoners? Theyre in stir virtually all day. Nothing much in the way of job training or education -- I hear they hand out crossword puzzles and call it classwork. Sure, farm work is miserable labor; thats why we turn a blind eye to people who sneak into this country to do it. But even for a captive labor pool, does hard work beat hard time? Are felons so desperate for occupation that this would be an improvement? Is Rohrabacher on to something? Or is that something sheer exploitation?

Some Americans want prisoner training so inmates will have something useful to do when theyre paroled, as most are. Others want prisoners to work while theyre inside to make sure taxpayers get their moneys worth and convicts cant loaf around eating Mars bars and watching Homer Simpson in big-screen color.

I couldnt get to prisoners, so I asked a few people who know them. Its hardly a plebiscite, but then neither is Rohrabacher.

Sarah Chappell is a Fresno, Calif., psychotherapist working with prisoner families; her own husband is in prison on drug charges.

Theyre so bored in there ... everyone I know would love to have a job and a job that pays something ... doing something productive. Theyd have to be paid, she says -- not as much as minimum wage, but in my mind it wouldnt be exploitation if they were paid some kind of reasonable rate. They could work mornings, study in the afternoons and use what they earn to pay victim restitution.

So theres one qualified yes vote. And heres another:

Vic Abrunzo retired after a career that took him from the Justice Department to the vice principals office and into the courtroom as an attorney. Hes on the inmate family council at the womens prison in Chowchilla, Calif.

The (inmate) ladies I have met are dying for programs. Most are bored stiff. ... Theres always a long, long waiting list for all the jobs. Are all the inmates going to want to work? Will any want to do stoop labor? I dont know. I do know that if there were any meaningful jobs with meaningful returns -- and their degree of meaning is smaller than yours and mine -- they would do it.

But, truly, how would you make this work? Would politicians extend workers-comp-type protections to convicts who are being officially punished by the state? What if the prospect of farm work turned out to be a better crime deterrent than three strikes?

Thereve always been problems with prison labor -- and without it. In 1904, Illinois experts concluded that inmates go nuts without work. Condemning a man to idleness, a state senator said, is condemning him to madness. In 1947, local unions threw up a picket line when Los Angeles County put prison inmates to work on a demolition job just a few blocks west of downtown. And this very day, in Virginia, inmates on low-cost labor crews tend that states Capitol grounds, paint the schools and clean the landfills.

Abrunzo said hes been stymied at getting approval just for inmates to grow their own vegetables on prison grounds, so I cant imagine getting approval to let the women out to do stoop labor or farm work.

If prisons cant or wont set up adequate work and training programs within their walls, how likely are they to operate anything outside them?

Security would be as labor-intensive as the farm work itself. I cant imagine Rohrabacher or any other politician or bureaucrat setting himself up to play the next Mike Dukakis to some farm-laborer Willie Horton inmate escapee.

So, Congressman, you might get some of the prisoners votes for this idea -- if they could vote -- but you might want to think twice. You could find yourself the unwilling face of prison reform. And the inmate you want to pick your breakfast strawberries could be someone you used to break bread with, like your old colleague, ex-congressman Randy Duke Cunningham, or your great good friend Jack Abramoff, the prison-bound lobbyist.

2006, Los Angeles Times

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