The concept of the prisoner as an employee and a worker is not one that is readily familiar. One thinks of the prisoner as an outcast, a lawbreaker, as a menace, perhaps, but the image of the inmate as a builder of roads, a farmer, a janitor, a cook, or a mechanic, is somehow a more muted one; to some, it is even a contradiction in terms. Two striking facts emerge when the prisoner is considered in his capacity as laborer: first, the paucity of legislative and judicial attention given to this aspect of his role (he is truly the "invisible man" in this guise); second, the contradictory policies and goals espoused by legislatures and judges when they do pay attention to this work role. For example, both requiring a prisoner to work and barring him from working have been used as punishment. Some states may require a prisoner to work for the state while in prison and yet simultaneously have statutes which bar him from working for the state when he is released. While in prison, inmates are allowed to develop and to use certain skills, such as barbering or jail-house lawyering, which trades or professions, however, are denied to them because of the licensing requirements when they return to society.
The paucity of formal legislative or litigative attention to the status of the prisoner as laborer is surprising, in light of the central role that work plays, both psychologically and practically, in the lives of the overwhelming majority of people. When the high correlation between unemployment, on the one hand, and commission of first offenses and recidivism, on the other, is considered, it is even stranger that the relationship of prisoners to work is not seen as the one requiring the most definition and development.
Prisoners are workers, however, and their fields of endeavor have been as nearly diverse as those to be found in any community. This article will examine the history of the prisoner as a worker during incarceration, the goals his work has been seen to fulfill, and the legislative and judicial decisions which have shaped his legal status.
Leroy D. Clark & Gwendolyn M. Parker, The Labor Law Problems of the Prisoner, 28 RUTGERS L. REV. 840 (1975)