Are Prisoners Who Make Low Wages Being Exploited?

Over the summer, critics objected to Whole Foods’ participation in a program that used poorly paid prisoners to make expensive cheese for the grocery store’s upscale customers, according to Vice:

Whole Foods responded to the criticism by saying it sources tilapia and cheese from CCI as part of its mission to support communities, “and that includes the paid, rehabilitative employment of inmates at CCI. They are paid for their work, and learn job skills that can help them contribute to society in meaningful ways upon their release,” the company said in a statement.

Libertarians are generally in favor of “capitalist acts between consenting adults,” even in situations that many moralizers view as exploitation. However, we need to be very careful in a situation where there is overt coercion, namely a workforce being held behind bars. The normal logic of win-win market exchanges between employer and employee may not apply in the context of a prison.

In this particular case, the benefits of the program, as expressed by representatives for the prison work program as well as Whole Foods, are real. Indeed, they resemble economist Ben Powell’s persuasive justifications for “sweatshop” labor in the developing world.

Specifically, even though (according to the Vice article) prisoners may earn as little as 74 cents per day, the participating prisoners can earn more at these private/public jobs than the inmates who perform more traditional tasks such as working in the kitchen or laundry. Just because a job strikes outsiders as horrible and underpaid doesn’t mean we should be quick to advocate removing these options.