Less Collective Bargaining, More Prison Labor in Wisconsin.

Thank you Scott Walker for the reminder that when it rains, it pours. The Journal Times of Wisconsin reported a few weeks ago that, just as the Governor's collective bargaining changes became law, some Wisconsin inmates were given "the opportunity to help Wisconsin by landscaping, painting, and shoveling sidewalks in the winter." But these opportunities are really nothing more then the carnivorous result of union-busting: pitting at-risk populations against middle class union employees.

Racine County Executive and Republican Jim Ladwig argues that new opportunities for prison labor are good for the prisoners. The work is voluntary and it can be exchanged for compensation or reduced sentences. “We have a win-win when we use the inmates,” Ladwig said. “It gives them a sense of value they are helping the community.”

But this deal is not good for prisoners. First, it is well documented that inmate worker programs save money because inmates are paid well below even private sector wages. In some states, inmates are not even entitled to the state minimum wage or compensation at all.

Second, the strategy is not efficient for Wisconsin or its incarcerated citizens. A Pew study on the State of Recidivism concluded that "If states could reduce their recidivism rates by just 10 percent, they could save [millions]. . . in averted prison costs." Wisconsin's incarceration rate is well below the national average, but the Department of Corrections still spends about $1.5 billion each year for just over 100,000 citizens (this includes those incarcerated and those on parole).

Yet, rather than encourage rigorous workforce training and education that could create real opportunities once the citizen's sentence is served, Wisconsin incentivizes its incarcerated citizens to perform chores by offering reduced sentences. This has the dual effect of not preparing incarcerated citizens for re-entry, thus further strangling their choices. What is worse, as Walker challenges collective bargaining, he creates an even more unstable employment environment for low income workers. This is a recipe for higher recidivism and more public spending on corrections, not less.

If this strategy isn't good for the incarcerated, then who is it good for? Certainly not public union employees, who are the main focus of Scott Walker's reforms. Nor can ordinary working families be said to benefit. Well manicured and beautifully painted highways are all well and good, but when "using" incarcerated citizens means depressing the wages (again, below even so-called market rates) or eliminating union jobs all together, I'm sure Wisconsin's working men and women would pass.

At first, it seemed Scott Walker was only adopting the union-busting practices that have become common practice in private industry. Actually, his aspirations extend a bit further. Walker's Wisconsin is now in the practice of exploiting the vulnerable at more than one level.

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