Part 3: An Idle Mind
Three years ago, Samuel and Rachel purchased a wooden crate manufactured by inmates at the New Hampshire State Prison, but they wondered: was it ethically made?
This is the third episode in our four-part series on mass incarceration in New Hampshire. Explore the full series here.
Three years ago, not long after Samuel and Rachel King moved to Concord from Texas, they were expecting their first kid. They needed to stock up on supplies and prepare their apartment for her arrival.
So, the Kings found themselves at a furniture showroom just north of downtown Concord, where they bought a handmade wooden box for fifty bucks.
“It's a big open crate… wide, open planks. We've kind set it up with different bins, with blocks and puppets, and musical instruments,” said Samuel.
The selling point: it didn’t have a lid.
“I’m an ER nurse. And I one time had a kid who had a really bad injury from the lid slamming on his finger,” said Rachel. “So when we saw this I was like, that'll work much better, she can't hurt herself on it.”
But in the three years they’ve had the toy box, a question has nagged at them.
“The question was whether or not the toy box that we purchased at the retail showroom was ethically made,” said Samuel.
The toy box was made by inmates at the New Hampshire State Prison.
When they bought it, the Kings recall that the tag indicated it had been made in the prison’s Correctional Industries program.
Ideally, Samuel said, he wished they could have the opportunity to speak to the individual who built the crate.
“Did this help you? Are you proud you were able to do it? Did you feel taken advantage of while you were in Correctional Industries?”
Was the toy box made by the DOC's Correctional Industries program ethically made?
Samuel and Rachel King’s question reflects a national attention–and perhaps, unease–about the use of labor inside correctional facilities, 88% of which operate some kind of work program.
“I wanted to make sure it didn't hurt anyone. We've lived across the country… we’ve heard stories,” said Samuel.
“My hope is that the point of the whole program is for rehabilitation, to give inmates skills… not to supply the jail with extra revenue,” said Rachel. “That the inmates get some sort of compensation for their work.”
Prison labor takes many forms, and New Hampshire’s Department of Corrections (DOC) divides their job assignments into five categories. Some labor classified as “Service-Related”, e.g. kitchen, laundry, or maintenance; other jobs are involved in the operations of the prisons themselves. Inmates can also work in warehouse services or on the farm crew. Education is also work category: if they’re a student or involved in a treatment program, that can be its own job assignment. The prison also runs an educative hobbycraft program in which inmates can build furniture, for example, and earn commission from its sale through the retail store.
Correctional Industries is one of those five work categories. It’s both a manufacturing facility and a training program, and it’s where the King family’s toy box could have been made. This type of industry program exists in state corrections facilities across the country. Some view them as a way for inmates to learn skills and have a meaningful life while incarcerated, while also reducing costs. After release, participation in the program might make it easier to get a job and to stay out of prison. To others, these and other prison labor programs give governments and private businesses access to a cheap work force.
From license plates to ballot envelopes
“Our mission in Correctional Industries is to teach people skills. I honestly can’t think of anything more ethical than that. The intention is to help them be better,” said Ronald Cormier, administrator for Correctional Industries. He’s been in the role for almost four years, but he’s been with the New Hampshire Department of Corrections (DOC) for nearly twenty year.
The DOC operates Correctional Industries in the three state prisons: in Berlin’s Northern Correctional Facility operates an upholstery and woodworking shop; in the women’s prison in Concord, they offer work in Braille transcription, dye sublimation, painting birdhouses, and warehouse order fulfillment for the prison canteen.
With four shops, the men’s state prison in Concord offers the most options: upholstery and woodworking, printing, signs and engraving, and license plate factory.
“These shops are gonna be quite loud!” said Cormier, as he opened the door to the plate shop, “where every license plate in the state is made.” Inmates have been stamping New Hampshire’s license plates since 1932, complete these days with the slogan “Live Free or Die”.
The shop is essentially a factory: bulky cast-iron equipment in a cavernous warehouse, ceiling laced with giant vent pipes and bulky cast-iron equipment. The walls are lined with antique license plates, including many retired designs.
“We produce approximately half a million plates a year for the Department of Safety. So if there's a license plate on your car, it came from here,” said Cormier.
This isn’t unusual: license plates are manufactured in prisons in most states. In New Hampshire, the Department of Safety buys plates from the Correctional Industries at cost–right now, $1.20 a plate–including weekly orders of vanity plates, which slows down the line (New Hampshire is second in the nation in the proportion of vanity plates in the state).
But the Department of Safety is far from Correctional Industries’ only client: the list also include businesses, individuals, and governments across New Hampshire.
“Town annual reports, school district stuff, state printing... you name it, we've probably printed it here at some point,” said Cormier.
During our visit, one printer was churning out order forms for a local construction company; nearby, a worker operated bindery machine to make manuals for Justice of the Peace. The print shop also produced upwards of a million absentee ballot envelopes for last year’s elections. In New Hampshire, felons do not have the right to vote while incarcerated, so workers printing the absentee ballot envelopes were themselves disenfranchised.
Jobs with Correctional Industries are coveted positions, Cormier explained, and they don’t open up that often. To be eligible, workers have to classified as either medium or minimum security, and meet certain criteria–they can’t have possessed a weapon within the past two years, for example, and can’t have screened positive for drugs within the one year.
Plus, to get the job inmates have to request the position, apply for a transfer, and go through an interview process. The process is designed this way, Cormier says, to teach professional “soft skills.”
In the sign and engraving shop, Jessie Labrie was in the middle of a job, cutting nametags for department staff on one of the shop’s machines while Cormier and the shop manager talked nearby.
“It’s quite capable as long as you have patience... which sometimes is in short order around here,” said Labrie, laughing. He’s been working in the engraving shop for fourteen years, and less than a year ago, they installed a new laser engraver.
“It’s been an interesting learning curve, oh boy! But it’s nice to feel we’re catching up with the times and becoming a little more aware of what’s actually going on out there, and I'm excited to get to apply it someday when the time comes,” said Labrie.
He anticipates being able to use his skills when after he’s released.
“Absolutely. I’ve talked to several people who’s been out in the job field out there who say there are jobs available as in this sort of thing, whether as CNCs, or what have you. So, I look forward to being able take these skills and transition with them... I’m excited,” said Labrie.
In theory, Correctional Industries is intended to help make it easier for people like Labrie to find employment post-incarceration, but good data is hard to come by.
“I know every state in the country would love have some of that data. Unfortunately, once they leave here, a lot of times, we lose track of them,” said Cormier. “We have no real way to tell, unless they reach back out to us… which some do. Certainly I think everyone has their stories, or knows a few individuals who have done something with what they’ve learned. As far as keeping hard data, the best we can do with it is try to monitor people who go through programs, and see if it’s making a difference from a recidivism perspective, and are they able to keep a job out there on the street and not come back here?”
Some research suggest that prison industry programs reduce recidivism, including a 2015 evaluation from Washington State University. The researchers found that participation in Washington State Correctional Industries “significantly reduces recidivism and increases the likelihood of gaining employment after release from prison.” But, in another study published by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2017, authors wrote that “overall, the evidence suggests that while the effect of prison labor on recidivism is, at best, minimal, the impact on prison misconduct and post-release employment has generally been favorable.”
But this research primarily focuses on the effectiveness of prison industry programs. The Kings’ original question was concerned with ethics, and one of the easiest places to start trying to answer that very thorny question is money.
Wages in Correctional Industries
In New Hampshire’s Correctional Industries, the pay scale ranges from $2.15 to $5.15 per day.
“That's fairly standard pay for most of jobs in facility. We’re actually a little higher than some of the jobs within the prison facilities,” said Cormier. Other jobs, i.e. canteen, kitchen, cleaning, etc., start at $1.15 per day.
Wages vary depending on shift length: shift workers (3 hours per shift) and another for all-day workers. Workers start at lower level and earn raises based on longevity and skill level, with additional benefits for those who mentor and train other workers.
“There are states that pay nothing, and there are states that pay a little more, so I think we’re in the middle of the road as far as Correctional Industries go around the country,” said Cormier.
Incarceration is expensive, and as is, securing adequate funding to run the prison is challenging. According to the DOC, the average annual cost of incarcerating one person is $34,155. It’s hard to imagine that paying workers even minimum wage on top of that would be sustainable. Although Correctional Industries is not a business, the program earns revenue but does not break even. In 2016, its costs exceeded its revenues by a little over $372,000, less than 1% of the DOC’s over $107 million budget.
The total pay for inmate workers in Correctional Industries in that year was $161,218–about a tenth of a percent of DOC budget.
“We’re a revolving fund, so every penny that’s generated from industry sales goes back into Industries budget,” Cormier explained. “It’s to self-fund the program. So, it’s not like those sales are being used to fund other things. We do the best we can… so we’re not asking the taxpayers for all kinds of supplemental funds.”
The reason that it is legal to pay inmates below minimum wage starts with the 13th amendment of the United States, which abolished slavery, except as a punishment for a crime. Making someone work without pay while incarcerated is perfectly constitutional if they’re being punished.
Plus, in the definition for employment in the U.S. tax code, employment is outlined with an exception for “service performed by a person committed to a penal institution.” That means prison labor does not count as employment, and laws around minimum wage and organizing also do not apply.
So, across the country, inmates work at rates far below minimum wage– like, far below. As in New Hampshire, often they’ll produce office supplies and furniture, sometimes mattresses, but the industry programs are diverse: some produce First-Aid kits, targets for shooting practice. In other states, they raise crops and livestock and train, or “gentle”, wild horses.
In California, inmates fighting California wildfires, can earn as little as $1.45 a day (page 367 in the CDCR Operations Manual) but their criminal record prevents them from securing a job as a firefighter after release.
Being incarcerated is not free
As Cormier mentioned, while workers are paid a little in New Hampshire’s Correctional Industries, in other states, they’re paid nothing. But cash flow is important for incarcerated people because being in prison isn’t free. Often inmates must buy basic necessities at the commissary. In New Hampshire, a bar of soap costs $0.60; a 6oz tube of Colgate toothpaste, $2.24; and a 12.5 oz bottle of V05 shampoo, $1.34.
Plus, there’s the matter of phone calls.
“I had a formula for phone calls… one thirty-minute phone with your family is a dollar… $1.05,” said Sekwan Merritt, a paralegal and prison reform advocate. He was incarcerated in Maryland from 2012 to 2017. Merritt earned $1.37 per day at his job in the Maryland Enterprises print shop, which meant that an hour-long phone call cost more than his daily wage.
These rates are much higher than those New Hampshire’s prisons. The DOC contracts with Global Tel*Link to charge 1.3 cents a minutes a comparison, an hour-long phone call would costs 78 cents. According to the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, NH is #2 in the nation in terms of affordability, and Commissioner Helen Hanks wrote in an email that “we were aware of the issues regarding affordability when we published our RFP so we could be assured this was a very affordable service for those incarcerated to stay connected telephonically.”
But at $0.78, an hour-long phone call would still cost an inmate 36 percent of a $2.15 shift wage.
Although Merritt’s original sentence was twenty-five years without parole (he was charged with a nonviolent drug offense for possession with intent to distribute 2.4 grams of heroin), he researched his case in prison and worked to overturn his sentence after only five years. But, at the time when he applied for a job at the Maryland Enterprises print shop inside the prison, his release date was 2037.
“The manager had asked me, ‘When’s your release date?’ I told him, and he actually said ‘Bad, for you, good for me,’” Merritt recalled.
Regarding his $1.37 daily wage, Merritt said, “That's the norm, so it's not really a surprise. Unfortunately, a lot of guys look at that and sometimes their eyes glow because at least they have some kind of income coming in, if they're not getting any help from family members on the outside.”
Merritt says he “absolutely” had a sense of the history surrounding the Thirteenth Amendment while he was in the prison industry program.
“It felt horrible,” he said. “At times I got bitter, but I was determined to make it work for me, that the state of Maryland… wasn't going to just bury me in prison, as somebody you just tossed away. So whether that be in in the shop, I made sure I got in front of that Apple computer, and I made sure I learned InDesign, I made sure learned Photoshop… the latest programs they had. I always felt that one day I was gonna be released and I wanted to be prepared.”
When asked his opinion on whether or not King family’s toy box was ethically made, Merritt replied, “flatly, no.”
“Someone that made that box was pretty much exploited from the current condition they were in,” said Merritt. “You pretty much had no other choice but to obtain a job in order to provide for yourself in prison at a wage that’s maybe 10% of minimum wage in the state, maybe even lower than that. So, yeah... I would definitely be a ‘no’ to that question.”
Prison does not create conditions in which a free choice is being made, Merritt argues.
Work, slavery, and rehabilitation
For the DOC, part of the point of Correctional Industries is rehabilitation. But the idea of rehabilitation is not as simple as it first appears.
“The very idea of rehabilitating someone is itself deeply confused,” said Joshua Miller, philosophy professor at Georgetown University and Direction of Education for their Prison Scholars Program. “Prisons in the United States are just a little over two centuries old. I would say that we haven’t ever been a very effective rehabilitation system.”
This confusion is not new. Generally, before the Revolutionary War, ideas of crime and punishment were centered on the workhouse, criminalizing idleness, and corporal punishment–whipping, the pillory–-violent physical punishment, sometimes as a public example.
“We told ourselves this was cruel, we should never act in this way,” said Miller.
In 1764, Cesare Beccaria, an Italian Enlightenment philosopher from Milan, published an essay called “On Crimes and Punishment.” In it, Beccaria argued that punishment’s goal should not be to torment offenders or to undo a crime already committed: it should prevent further harm, and deter others from committing that same crime. It was a shift from retribution to deterrence. These ideas began to spread right around the birth of the United States.
“That transition… starts in the United States and then a few other places in Europe, and then quickly catches wildfire,” said Miller. “This new thing of just detaining someone forcibly and then trying to require them to engage in activities that will rehabilitate their soul: prayer and meditation, Bible study, and work, all of which were thought to be, in some sense, virtuous.”
This idea is sometimes termed “the rehabilitative ideal”: that punishment’s main purpose is to reform the character. Some version of this ideology existed in New Hampshire, too. In 1804, Governor John Gilman suggested that New Hampshire should “confine criminals to hard labor in the hopes of reforming them.”
“By transitioning to a more gentle form of punishment, we’ve also transitioned to a technique that we can use much more widely. They seem useful, they seem acceptable, and they’re cheaper, literally, than the corporal punishments that are so violent. So that's why prison catches on, and grows and grows and grows,” said Miller.
The rehabilitative ideal was an idea that shaped, or at least, justified prisons. If work is rehabilitative, that’s really convenient because inmate labor is cheap. From their earliest days, American criminal justice and convict labor– and slavery– went hand in hand. For instance, convicts helped build Baltimore and Pennsylvania. In New Hampshire, inmate labor paid for the operation of the prisons. According to a DOC timeline, New Hampshire’s prison housed its first inmate in 1812. By 1816, inmates were working in the smith’s shops, weaving, tailoring, making shoes and barrels, and preparing the granite to build the State House. By 1820, the prison contracted inmate labor to private investors, a practice which continued until 1932, when that labor was redirected to serve the state in the form of a license plate factory, printing press, and other shops.
In other words, Correctional Industries was born.
Freedom is a constant struggle
In the latter half of the 20th century, New Hampshire’s prisons transformed.
“Prisons are constantly evolving. I used to say that sometimes I wished that I could try auto-accident cases where you prove what happened at a given moment in a given place at a given time. When you’re litigating about prison conditions, every day sometime changes,” said Elliott Berry, an attorney at New Hampshire Legal Assistance, or NHLA, where he’s worked for 43 years.
When he began speaking about labor in New Hampshire’s State Prison, Berry left the room and returned with a thick-to-bursting white binder reading, “Laaman Settlement Agreements, 1978-2003.” The binder contained a set of documents the ripple effects of a lawsuit that were felt for decades-- ripple effects that introduce another question: could it be unethical not to provide work opportunities in prison?
The original lawsuit was brought by a group of twelve inmates, led by a man named Jaan Laaman.
A statement recorded by Jaan Laaman in 2009. Laaman is still incarcerated in a federal facility in Kentucky.
Laaman didn’t grow up in New Hampshire. His family emigrated from Estonia when he was a child. As a young man, he was activist: protesting the Vietnam War, organizing youth development with the Black Panthers, and putting together an anti-apartheid concert in Boston featuring Bob Marley. He was also a member of the United Freedom Front (UFF), also known as the Ohio 7.
Laaman refers to the UFF as an “anti-imperialist, clandestine movement,” but they were also a terrorist group. Laaman helped organize two bombings in New Hampshire: one of Richard Nixon’s reelection headquarters, the other at a Manchester police and fire station. Nobody died or got hurt, except for Laaman, who injured his hand.
In the New Hampshire State Prison, Laaman, as Judge Bownes put it in 1977, did not keep a low profile. He also described Laaman as an “able, prolific, and often successful jailhouse lawyer” whose crime was “generally abhorred by the prison staff”, although he was “popular among the inmates.” By the time he’d served five years in prison, Laaman had sued the prison seven times in the U.S. District Court in New Hampshire–including the most comprehensive lawsuit ever brought against the prison.
“The complaint… covered almost everything,” said Berry.
As a result of Laaman case, there is detailed documentation of nearly every aspect of prison life in New Hampshire in the 1970s, including the prison industry program.
“The single greatest concern for the inmates was a tremendous amount of idleness, so that they were simply doing time and doing very little that could be regarded as rehabilitative,” said Berry.
In Laaman v. Helgemoe (Helgemoe was the prison warden at the time), the court referred to “the old saying that idleness is the handmaiden of the devil”, and wrote that “the need for vocational training is manifest.”
“The court wrote a lot about the negative effects of idleness, and looked to the Eighth Amendment, the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, and found a requirement that inmates obtain rehabilitative opportunities,” said Berry.
"You may have all the great orders on paper, but they're not self-executing." Elliott Berry
The court wrote that “even though no single condition of incarceration rises to the level of a constitutional violation, exposure to the cumulative effect of prison conditions may subject inmates to cruel and unusual punishment.” The emphasis was on productive, meaningful work that would result in marketable skills.
“They needed a big, big improvement in prison industries, in vocational training, conventional classroom education… but the complaint really also pulled in stuff like visitation, *really almost everything,” said Berry. “So, for the next fifteen years, it was a question of enforcing the settlement. Remember, and this is classic in institutional litigation, and most of all in prisons: you may have all the great orders on paper, but they're not self-executing.”
In other words, winning the lawsuit is one thing–but shifting in the actual system is a much bigger challenge. It took decades, but the DOC did make huge changes, in the men’s prison at least. That language about meaningful work is written into the DOC's "Individual Work Assignments" policy. Today, about 15-20% of eligible inmate workers are employed in Correctional Industries.
"An idle mind is a dangerous mind."
Even though the DOC doesn’t have long-term data on Correctional Industries outcomes, the program can improve life while incarcerated and have lasting benefits to some workers.
“An idle mind is a dangerous mind. It’s the truth,” said Shawn, who asked not to share his full name. He operates an upholstery and home improvement business out of a garage in the southern New Hampshire woods.
“I enjoy doing the upholstery. I’ve been doing it since I was 16 years old,” he said.
Shawn grew up in Manchester and spent ten years in the state prisons, where he also trained workers in the upholstery shop for Correctional Industries
“I wasn’t there twenty minutes and I was called to Industries immediately,” said Shawn. “At one point, I was making $3.50 a shift, so I was actually making $7 plus bonus... I was making about $9 a day, training.”
“I had the chance to turn my life around and I did. I got my high school education. I have my Master’s in upholstery… the prison helped me get documentation on that,” said Shawn, referring to the prison’s program to help inmates obtain professional licenses as an apprentice, journeyman, or master craftsman.
Not all inmates have access to the same opportunity. For decades, programs in the women’s prison have lagged behind the men’s programs, largely due to the limitations of their old facility in Goffstown.
“When we filed suit, the state of both vocational training and industries–at what was the state prison for women in Goffstown–was pretty abysmal,” said Berry.
NHLA was again involved in decades of litigation and class action lawsuits on the basis of gender discrimination. A new women’s facility finally became operation in 2018. Warden Joanne Fortier declined to be interviewed for this story.
For women inmates, Correctional Industries offers dye sublimation (printing images on t-shirts and mugs). They’re also in the process of certifying seven workers for a Braille transcription service, and have plans for a warehouse order fulfillment program for the canteen and commissary. Cormier referred to it as a “mini-Amazon,” where workers learn “warehousing skills, quality control, shipping and receiving.”
As for Shawn, when he got out of prison, he started his business with the help of his now-wife and the support of his family. Reentry was difficult, but he says: look at me now.
“It falls back on the inmate. No matter what you did wrong, everybody can change. Everybody can get a better life than what they have, as long as they strive for it,” he said.
Shawn frequently pointed back to the responsibility of the individual person to take charge of their own life and take advantage of the opportunities available. In his mind, Correctional Industries was one part of a good program that helped him get his high school education, money for his needs in prison, and documentation which helped him with his career.
Answering the King family’s question
But despite the potential benefits of programs like Correctional Industries, sub-minimum-wages in prisons still draw criticism. In 2018, organizers of a national strike inside prisons included in their list of demands an “immediate end to prison slavery” and that inmates be paid the prevailing wage.
“Is it ethical just because it is better than again being completely inactive and having nothing to do while incarcerated? Does that make it right?” said Wanda Bertram, communications strategist at the Prison Policy Initiative, a criminal justice and public policy think tank.
“Though Americans often like to be tough on crime, we don't always like to pay for all that incarceration,” Bertram said.
New Hampshire is not an exception to mass incarceration. In 1977, when Laaman brought his lawsuit, there were 261 prisoners in the New Hampshire State Prison. In 2016, the most recent year listed on the DOC website, there were 2609 inmates within the system–a ten-fold increase.
“We have chosen as a society to undertake this huge expense associated with having a large criminal justice system, over-policing poor communities… and then, rather than actually reckon with the cost of doing that, we are using the people that are in that system to offset their own costs as much as possible,” said Bertram.
Both Shawn and Jessie Labrie suggested that the DOC’s Correctional Industries program benefited them, but when the King family framed their question about the toy box around ethics, in a way, they called for a deeper examination.
“This is a strained comparison, but it works sometime to look at the question of someone working at an unpaid internship. The people that are working at unpaid internships are probably overall quite happy they have those jobs. That doesn't make it okay that society is subsiding off of the existence of labor of people who will work for free. That’s not the operative question when you’re asking about ethics,” said Bertram.
Perhaps one way to answer the King family’s question is that the program can really only be as ethical as the system itself.
During the tour of the Correctional Industries, it became evident that a great deal of towns and businesses across New Hampshire are purchasing goods produced by Correctional Industries for all manner of supplies that keep things running.
In the print shop, two decal machines turn out stickers and decals. Examples of the work are stuck on the walls–at a glance, there are stickers printed for Bartlett, Hooksett, Holderness, Wilmot, Rumney, and Kittery, Maine.
“And we have two of those, typically running most of the time. One of them is pretty much dedicated to state validation stickers,” said Cormier. One of the machines is dedicated full-time to state validation stickers, 1.6 million printed a year.
You don’t have to buy a toy box at the furniture showroom to be involved in prison labor. Their work comes right in the mail.
Special thanks to Amani Sawari, Alvin Tillery, Faith Lutze, Grant Duwe, Adam Hirsch, and Laura Williams.