In Eli Hager's outstanding Washington Post prisoner child-support piece October 19, Senator Orin Hatch fundamentally errs, as do most of us, in producing contradictory social policies forcing mothers into the labor force (welfare reform) while forcing fathers out of it (criminal justice policy). This social schizophrenia is based on the belief that unemployment is a natural correlate of incarceration, when in fact there is no innate connection between incarceration and unemployment. A far superior policy, consistent with welfare reform – and a great opportunity - is propelling offender employment and child support at all stages of the criminal justice process.
Nearly half of state prison inmates were gainfully employed when arrested. Corrections itself recognizes thousands capable of remunerative work. Prisoners desperately seek jobs, even at 20 cents-an-hour, and California inmate fire-fighters daily risk their lives for $2.
We forget that prisons and prisoners offer excellent resources, including security, multi-shift availability on-site, and without distractions. Experience amply shows, moreover, that “lifers” make excellent employees (Nebraska’s programs, for example).
Truth is, offenders do not voluntarily choose unemployment, Orin Hatch and we “voluntarily” choose to unemploy offenders. If we and our elected representatives care about offenders becoming responsible parents, he and we (together with business, organized labor, and faith communities) should aggressively make at least these policy changes: First, reform arrest and pretrial procedures, keeping persons out of jail and in (or acquiring) jobs; second, in corrections keep offenders in the community, working and meeting responsibilities, or where safety requires incarceration, maximizing work-release and normal FLSA-covered employment inside the walls (similar to PIE – Prison Industry Enhancement), and third, proactively welcome ex-offenders to the legal labor force, and be examples in hiring otherwise fully qualified ex-offenders, while enforcing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ( addressing disparate impact discrimination in hiring).
Driving offenders from legal employment and responsibility more reflects discrimination, slavery, and eugenics than wise economic, criminal justice, family, or social policy. The good news for Orin Hatch and us is that great opportunities await in seeing employment separately from incarceration.
Thomas W. Petersik, PhD