Creating a 40-Hour Work Week for Prisoners

Violent crime decreased by 4.4% in the first half of 2009, despite the lousy shape of the economy and the high rates of unemployment, according to a surprising report released last week by the FBI. Experts looking to explain this counterintuitive trend have credited everything from smart and targeted policing in big cities (last year New York was safer than it had been during any year on record), to innovative use of new technologies to prevent and deter crime (more cities are using crime-mapping systems and other novel strategies to leverage scarce resources), to the $4 billion included in the stimulus bill to help state and local law enforcement and criminal justice systems weather the tough economic times.

But the reality is that states and local governments, faced with anemic budgets even before the economic crisis hit, are desperately searching for ways to find savings in their inefficient and exorbitantly expensive corrections systems. In some cases, prisoners are being released before they have finished their sentences. Unfortunately, little is being done to ensure that those who are released don't end up right back where they started--in prison--on the taxpayer's dime.

Last week, Congressman Anthony Weiner (D-NY) introduced the Inmate Work, Education, and Responsibility Curriculum Act (I-WERC), HR 4458, which would provide grants to state and local corrections facilities to create a 40-hour work week for prisoners to pursue responsible activities. The program would require corrections facilities to conduct an individualized assessment of a prisoner's education, skills, and history. Based on that assessment, corrections facilities would develop a self-improvement curriculum for each participant consisting of activities critical for reentry, such as education, counseling, substance use treatment, anger management, and skills and job training.

Under Congressman Weiner's bill, state and local corrections officials could require participants to spend as much time on their curriculum as most people do at work--40 hours a week. This would force prisoners to begin working on their successful reentry while they are still behind bars--transforming idleness into productivity and working every day towards becoming responsible citizens upon their reintegration into the community.

A wide range of groups from across the political spectrum have come together to support Congressman Weiner's I-WERC bill, including the American Jail Association and others in the corrections community, Prison Fellowship and members of the faith community, and the Legal Action Center and other criminal justice advocacy groups. They all recognize one important fact: we release 700,000 people a year from corrections facilities in this country. If we don't arm those people to take responsibility for themselves and become productive members of their communities when they return home, we are sentencing ourselves to an inevitable increase in crime, and the hefty burden of paying to lock them up again.

To learn more about the I-WERC bill, HR 4458, click here and here.

By Lanae Erickson, Policy Counsel, and Rachel Laser, Culture Program Director, at Third Way.