A relative is insisting that currently, in our state, which is New York, prison inmates are required to do "hard labor." I was skeptical, but I tried to find some evidence of this by searching the internet. I found a Mother Jones article that talked about prison jobs, but I didn't find anything about "hard labor." Is what he's telling me true?
Yes, New York can require prisoners to work.
The New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) oversees prisons, parole, and other parts of the criminal justice system in the state of New York. Within DOCCS, the Correctional Industries program oversees vocational programs. These are programs that allow inmates to work as part of their sentence.
Vocational programs allow, but do not require, convicts to work. Working generally has a few benefits:
- Convicts often lack job skills or the social skills necessary to be successful outside of prison. Without these skills, their recidivism rate is particularly high. Vocational programs provide the convict a better chance of reintegrating into society and reduce the risk of re-offending.
- Idle hands can be dangerous in a prison. By providing work opportunities DCCS reduces misbehavior, violence, and other issues within the prison system.
- It can reduce costs or generate revenue for the prison system.
As an interesting historical note, New York was the first American state to allow paid prison labor. John Jay, Founding Father, Supreme Court Justice, but then Governor of New York, signed the act back in 1778. You can read about it on page 246 of "The Constitutional History of New York".
No, this is not "hard labor".
This is different than hard labor. The idea of hard labor is that, once convicted, a person is sentenced to "work off" their crime. The state, community, or firm can receive value from the convict without having to pay them (except subsistence). The philosophy behind this is that they have done harm, but that society can extract value from them to makeup for some of it (or punish them by giving them undesirable work). In any case, it isn't voluntary and it isn't for the convict's own good.
For more information, see the wikipedia article "Convict lease".