In most of the countries of the European Council, the work of people deprived of their liberty is regulated and among these examples, most of them see this work as compulsory. We know that this work is often facilitated by justice systems, but especially by private companies that establish protocols with justice systems. But what are the ethical and fair limits for this work done by convicted people? We know that there is a concern to clarify that work done by convicted individuals, even in countries where prison labour may be mandatory, is not considered forced labour. In this regard, Convention no. 29 of the International Labour Organization on Forced or Compulsory Labour states that “all work or service required of an individual as a consequence of conviction arising out of a judicial decision shall not be considered as forced labour, provided that such work or service is performed under the supervision and control of public authorities and that the same individual is not placed at the disposal of private individuals, companies or private morals.”
In the same direction, the International Pact on Civil and Political Rights, in article 8, indicates that the work required of an individual who is detained as a result of a legitimate judicial decision is not considered forced or compulsory labour. This clarification is relevant because many of these people prefer to be working rather than remaining locked up in their cells and, as the justice services know. This could lead to exploitation situations. We know some examples of healthy and fair work in prison, but still too few. The case of Delta in Portugal, a coffee company that invested in the creation of coffee machine maintenance workshops inside prisons and establishes working relationships with people deprived of their liberty based on legal premises analogous to the same situation in freedom, ensuring that workers have the same conditions of choice, contract and payment as they would have in the same situation in freedom.
The reality is that it is not enough to make work available, it is often necessary to train these people for the activity. Training is essential not only for work but – particularly – for the social reinsertion of convicted people. In Portugal, at the beginning of the 20th century (around 1937), the justice system was very much focused on work as a reintegration tool, and there are well-known norms and several projects that, at that time, already made it possible, among other things, for people, once they were released, to continue to be part of work brigades until they found a job, keeping a rotating system of days off in order to look for work outside sentence spectrum and stigma. This accumulated knowledge, a bit like in other countries, has no application nowadays. Essentially, after all these years, public policy has not changed – work is still central – but research findings allow us to affirm that its function has been reformed with more focus on training and not so much on the subsistence of legal labour relations. This is a defining issue since we know that the line between defining what is “work” and what it means to be “busy” is very thin and can be very dangerous from the point of view of the human person’s rights. Foucault wrote that “work must be one of the essential parts of the progressive transformation and socialization of persons deprived of liberty. (Prison) work should not be considered as an addition and, so to speak, as an aggravation of the sentence, but rather as a softening whose removal would be entirely possible.”
We believe in this regard that in Detention Houses convicted people can work inside or outside the house environment in learning and training contexts, but also in productive activities in the labour market outside the house. Empowering the person with skills to perform a professional activity, there are well-founded hopes that once they are free, they will be able to obtain a job, which will be fundamental for their society re-entry. There seems to be no doubt that an ecosystem of detention houses accelerates access to employment for convicted persons, reduces the scale and focuses on making the criminal justice system re-evaluate work policies.