Should we support industrial use of prison labour?

Whether prison labour is, and whether it should be, used in university supply chains are questions that have arisen in a number of contexts in recent weeks. When asked my opinion on the use of prisoners to manufacture goods, I realised I was yet to form a strong view on the issue – immediately seeing arguments for (such as in the potential for rehabilitation and training for the outside world), and against (the potential for exploitation and profiteering of cheap labour by private firms). Seeing that this issue provoked similar confusion among colleagues, I have carried out some preliminary research in order to bring associated ethical and practical questions to the attention of students and staff. It is not clear whether prison labour (overseas or in the UK) is a feature of any of the supply chains we work with at present, as there is a lack of transparency with regards to product flows. However, it is clearly appropriate for a university such as ours, with a strong focus on fairness in trade (see and our Fair Trade Academic Network), to reflect on whether we should be actively supporting, or attempting to ban, prison labour in our supply chains.

My short desk-based study identifies motives behind making prisoners work. These include punishment, rehabilitation, and to save or make money. In the 19th century there was a shift in Western prisons from labour as punishment, to useful work, such as laundry or cooking. Prisoners were working to cover some of the costs of their incarceration. There has been a further shift in two waves – initially at the time of the industrial revolution, and again in recent decades dominated by neoliberal ideology, from cost-saving, to profit-making work. Prisoners have been forced or incentivised, depending on context, to manufacture goods for prison-owned industries and for private firms. Numerous authors argue that manufacturing in prisons has been used as a means of preparing disciplined, obedient workers, prepared to take low-paid jobs on release. In addition, private firms using prison labour have been able to benefit from low wages and reduced costs, as supervision and space are provided by the state. Questions are raised about whether manufacturing work carried out behind bars has detrimental effects on labour markets outside prisons.


In recent decades, in the UK in particular, the discourse among policy makers and prison officials has focused on work as rehabilitation. There are some examples of prisoners being trained in meaningful work, which relates to contemporary job markets, yet in many cases prisoners are found to be performing mundane, unskilled tasks. Overall there appears to be a lack of transparency regarding what work is carried out, and for whom.

Being a Fairtrade University, and one that is committed to exploring all avenues for trading fairly, I have considered to what extent prison labour could fit within a fair trade paradigm. Concepts of fair trade typically call for reasonable compensation for work carried out, decent working conditions, the right to freedom of association, and the provision of training opportunities. Whether and how much prisoners should be paid for work is complex. Currently most prisoners working around the world are paid small amounts, more as a form of pocket money to contribute to non-essential purchases. There are calls for prisoners to be paid national minimum wage levels, but most consider it fair to deduct proportions of such a salary to cover food and accommodation provided by prisons, and also for victim compensation. In terms of working conditions, evidently these vary, and prisoners are not able to join unions in order to voice concerns about conditions. As for training opportunities, as discussed above, while these are often made available in Western prisons, their relevance to potential jobs for prisoners once their sentences are over is often questioned. In addition, it is often unclear as to whether prison labour is forced or voluntary. In the UK, work is linked to an incentives scheme, but prisoners can be punished for not working. In several US states, full working weeks are overtly obligatory. Whether and how prison labour can be fair is clearly an area for further research.

My paper which deals with these issues in a little more detail and provides a list of questions to be explored further can be found here. Please share, discuss and comment on this post, in order to help stimulate the debate. We are looking into organising an event on prison labour in the coming months.

Liz Cooper
Fair Trade Coordinator

3 thoughts on “Should we support industrial use of prison labour?

  1. Pingback: Just World Institute blog | Liz Cooper

  2. Miesbeth Knottenbelt

    Thanks for an interesting discussion. Look forward to the forthcoming event you mention.
    Lack of clarity/transparency seems to be the theme throughout (where the goods the University buys come from, how they are produced, what the terms are under which prisoners labour in the UK and elsewhere, etc.)
    Do we know if there is research undertaken at Edinburgh that helps with any of these questions?

  3. Liz Cooper Post author

    Thanks Miesbeth. Following this blog post, a group of us were invited to visit HMP Shotts near Glasgow earlier this year (I wrote a short post on this on the SRS Visions blog). Procurement at the University are doing a lot of work on socially responsible/sustainable procurement, for example in collaboration with Scottish HE/FE buying consortium APUC!/susproject.php In terms of prison labour, and other potential linkages we could have with prisons in terms of rehabilitation, we hope to organise a researcher-practitioner mixer event during the coming academic year to dig into these questions further.

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