Productive, law-abiding citizens work for a living. We encourage schoolchildren to work and study hard to grow into responsible adults. We expect able-bodied welfare recipients to work for their bread. Why, then, do we house convicted criminals in state-sponsored idleness at enormous taxpayer expense?
The problem seems obvious. The vast majority of prison inmates spend their days at leisure — endless television-watching, perhaps weightlifting or socializing with fellow convicts, but little labor. They bear no practical responsibility to make whole the victims they have harmed, or to support the families they have left behind. Instead, we force them to remain inert. Leisure is usually a reward and a break from hard work, not a form of punishment. Citizens across the political spectrum dislike letting prisoners remain idle: An overwhelming number of Americans (87 percent, according to the National Opinion Survey of Crime and Justice) support work requirements, and even more favor the idea if inmates must use their wages to compensate victims and the state. And enforced idleness reduces the likelihood that inmates will be prepared to do anything other than resume a life of crime once they reenter society.