When I tell people about China's Laogai, often the first question people ask me is "What's wrong with prison labor?" Many people say that prisoners ought to labor, either as punishment or to pay for the cost of their imprisonment, and point out that the U.S. allows prison labor. I recently read a blog post arguing that prison labor would be a better deterrent to crime than just prison. Usually I respond by saying that prison labor in the U.S. is different from prison labor in China--working conditions in the Laogai are appalling, prisoners are forced to work, are not compensated for their work, and if they don't meet their production quotas prisoners are often beaten or have their meals withheld. So although the U.S. allows prison labor, it is very different from prison labor in China. Even so, there are some fundamental problems with prison labor in general that are worth pointing out.
Prison labor, particularly unpaid prison labor as they have in China, creates problems for those who wish to keep prison populations small and minimize arbitrary or unnecessary detention, and for those who believe in free markets with true competition. To the first point, a system in which the government stands to profit from imprisoning its people provides a perverse incentive for that government to continue to imprison more and more people. Many U.S. states already have prison labor, and, in fact, the five states with the highest incarceration rates as of 2007 (Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Oklahoma, and Alabama, respectively) all have active prison labor programs. (This fact also discredits the deterrent argument.) To be fair, the state with the lowest incarceration rate, Maine, also allows prison labor, so it is ambiguous whether the U.S. use of prison labor contributes to our notoriously high incarceration rates, but the connection should at the very least give us pause. (More after the jump)