Prison Labor: Reform or Abolish?

Prison Labor

Tuesday, November 28, 7:00-8:30 PM
Healey Family Student Center Social Room
Georgetown University
Food and refreshments will be served at 6:30 PM
RSVP here

The Prisons and Justice Initiative and the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor present “Prison Labor: Reform or Abolish?,” a conversation on America’s system of prison labor. 

While mass incarceration has received a great deal of attention in recent years, the topic of prison labor has been relatively neglected.  Many incarcerated men and women work within jails and prisons—often for wages as low as 10 cents per hour, and in some states for no remuneration at all.  

Prison authorities and industry managers often rationalize this labor by claiming that it mitigates the cost of detention while providing work routine and transferable skills that will benefit incarcerated workers upon their return to society—and they point out that there is no shortage of inmates wishing to volunteer for these positions.  Yet critics have compared prison labor to a form of modern day slavery, highlighting the questionable working conditions, minimal or nonexistent pay, and the apparent dependence of some states on the labor of prisoners.

Prison labor has received more attention recently, after a wave of strikes across carceral facilities in Alabama, where prison workers receive no pay, in 2016.  And 40 percent of those currently tasked with fighting the catastrophic wildfires in California are prisoners, working for $2 per day and an additional $1 an hour when they are directly on the fire lines.

Is this system of prison labor sustainable—or even defensible—in its present form?  Should prison labor be reformed or abolished?  This event will bring together a panel of experts who are uniquely qualified to address these complicated questions.


Marc M. Howard is a Professor of Government and Law at Georgetown University, where he directs the Prisons and Justice Initiative.  He has also taught as a volunteer professor in a maximum-security prison for over three years. He is the author of three books, most recently Unusually Cruel: Prisons, Punishment, and the Real American Exceptionalism.


Chandra Bozelko served more than six years in the maximum security York Correctional Institute, and she blogs about her experiences at  She is a 2017 Journalism and Women Symposium Emerging Journalist Fellow, 2017 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Criminal Justice Reporting Fellow and a 2018 Leading with Conviction fellow with JustLeadership USA and has published articles in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Guardian, and National Review.

David Fathi is the Director of the National Prison Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.  Formerly the Director of the US Program at Human Rights Watch, he has been one of the strongest legal and moral advocates for improving conditions and rights in American prisons. 

Sekwan Merritt was sentenced in 2012 to 25 years in prison in Maryland for possession with intent to distribute 2.4 grams (0.0024 kg.) of heroin.  While in prison, he worked in the print and wood shops, furthered his education, and applied his legal skills to his own case.  He successfully appealed for a sentence modification, and he left prison on October 13, 2017.  Since achieving his freedom, Sekwan has landed a job as an electrician, and he has emerged as a powerful criminal justice reform advocate.

Arthur Rizer is the National Security and Justice Policy Director at the R Street Initiative.  A decorated army veteran and a former police officer and federal prosecutor, Rizer has also been a law professor at West Virginia University and Georgetown.  He is the author of four books, all published by the American Bar Association.