The Prisoner’s Dilemma III: Legal Reform

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Written by Elizabeth L. Carter of Urban Cooperative Enterprise Legal Center

“We've learned how to run a business, and some former inmates now have their own small businesses outside as a result. If you can change the way people think in prison, you can do anything. It is a model for social change."

- Roberto Luis Rodriguez Rosario, prison cooperative member of Cooperative Services ARIGOS.

In Part II of my “Prisoner’s Dilemma” series, I highlighted UCELC’s realization that starting a cooperative inside of prison is both ideal and practical where members naturally come together as a support group and learn to cooperate with one another before they reach instability outside of prison. However, this coming together may not be an option for many prisoners where certain laws prohibit prisoners cooperating with one another. This was the case with the prison co-op Cooperative Services ARIGOS in Puerto Rico. Here, members of the cooperative had to petition the governor and legislature to change the law to allow prisoners to come together and form a cooperative enterprise.[1]

In addition, Cooperative Services ARIGOS found a way to get the prison to agree with them conducting business inside its walls. For instance, the prison granted space to the cooperative and provided it certain services in exchange for 15 percent of the cooperative’s revenue.[2] This engagement turned out to be fruitful for both the cooperative and the prison because the cooperative members received well above the prison wage of $25 a month for every 160 hours worked on a typical prison job and in return, the prison received $10,000 to $15,000 in revenue. Rather, the cooperative members worked for themselves at a decent wage and received proper rehabilitation through meaningful work and skill-building, all of which will benefit them once they are out of prison.[3]  Ironically, the cooperative and prison created a mutual beneficial relationship instead of the typical parasitic and exploitative relationship found within prisons.

Unlike Puerto Rico in the earlier stages of Cooperative Services ARIGOS, the state of New Jersey—where UCELC is incorporated—does allow prisoners to gather or cooperate as long as they receive permission from the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections.[4] In addition, the state of New Jersey allows prisoners to operate a business for profit or a nonprofit enterprise with the permission of the Commissioner.[5] Likewise, New Jersey prohibits discrimination by a licensing authority against a person who had been convicted of a crime except, “if a conviction for a crime relates adversely to the occupation, trade, vocation, profession or business for which the license or certificate is sought.”[6] Thus, the laws of New Jersey will help prisoners and formerly incarcerated individuals become rehabilitated and self-sufficient through cooperative enterprise.

This is good news for UCELC as the problem found within the “Prisoner’s Dilemma” no longer seems great where the laws of New Jersey are favorable towards the creation of prison cooperatives. However, UCELC will still need to master the game of “Prisoner’s Dilemma” in order to launch a successful campaign aimed at combating something as great as the prison industrial complex and recidivism. In other words, UCELC will need to make the right partnerships with certain prisons and prison groups while also convincing policymakers that their cooperation in advancing prison cooperative development is best for the public good, especially where cooperatives have proven to be effective at both rehabilitating individuals and stabilizing communities. This effort will require favorable policies, and creative cooperative workshops inside of prisons that will not only educate, but rehabilitate prisoners, and provide effective tools for reentry. As insurmountable a feat as this sounds, it has been done and the rewards are too great for UCELC not to advance!

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[1] “Worker Ownership Behind Bars: The World’s First Co-op Run Entirely by Prisoners,” PolicyLink, http://www.policylink.org/focus-areas/equitable-economy/americas-tomorrow-newsletters/summit-speaker-maya-rockeymoore#Worker_Ownership_Behind_Bars__The_World___s_First_Co_op_Run_Entirely_by_Prisoners_.

[2] See Id.

[3] See Id.

[4] See NJAC 10A:4-4.1

[5] See NJAC 10A:4-4.1

[6] NJSA 2A:168-2.

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