Meaningful Work is the Whole Enchilada

Why Prison Co-Ops Are Essential to

the California Model

by Kelton P. O’Connor, Senior Advisor to Earth Equity

Before Norwegians reformed their prisons they abolished poverty, achieved full employment, and created quasi-utopian workplace conditions. This set the stage for the success of their world famous anti-recidivism strategy. Nations hoping to learn from Norse achievements should not overlook these facts. 

According to a study that scrutinized records of 23,000 Norwegian offenders (all Norwegians incarcerated over a nine year period), incarceration was found to reduce overall rates of recidivism by 29%, at the five year mark (1). However, reductions were driven by offenders who were unemployed at time of arrest, and reentered the workforce upon release.  For this group recidivism was reduced by 46% and commission of crime was reduced by 22 offenses. For all other offenders the risk of recidivating was unchanged, strongly suggesting that the deterrent effect of work on recidivism is what makes the Norwegian model work. This study investigated the possibility that reductions in crime and recidivism occurred independent of increases in employment, but concluded the “individuals who are induced to start working are the same individuals who stop committing crimes.” This means it is extremely likely that the Norwegian approach will only work in economies where work has an impact on recidivism.

The California workplace is less welcoming than Norway’s and most industries that hire incarnated people in California have no impact on recidivism. A particularly rigorous study that scrutinized the data on 1.7 million releases from Californian prisons has found that work in California does not reduce recidivism, unless it is of good “quality” (2). Factors that were found to affect quality were wages, benefits, and job stability. The food services, janitorial services, and retail industry among others were found to have no statistically significant effect on recidivism. Construction and manufacturing were the only major industries that exerted an effect, but this effect was isolated to certain age groups. No industry impacted recidivism for male offenders 25 years and younger— the demographic most responsible for violent crime and most likely to recidivate. Since that study was conducted, job quality in California has only eroded.

If we want the California model to work we must face the fact that in California, work does not work like it does in Norway. We must rehabilitate not just incarcerated people, but also the workplaces to which incarcerated people return. A Norwegian style remake of California’s entire work environment is obviously not a practical proposal, but a more expedient, selective approach can be found in nations like England, Ethiopia, and Italy (3). These nations, and many others, have rehabilitated workplace conditions in marginalized communities by promoting cooperative business models inside prisons, at reentry, and for permanent employment of returned citizens.

As compared to the standard business model, the co-op model significantly improves wages, benefits, and household wealth, and provides more stable employment (4)— precisely the features of work that impact rates of recidivism. Co-ops also promote pro-social behaviors and positive work culture because their operations depend on collective decision making. In prison settings co-op participants report improved self-esteem, mood, and connection to family. Italy’s recidivism rate is higher than the United States, but the 10% of Italian prisoners who work in prison co-ops have a 5% rate of recidivism (3). 

California can deliver on its promise of safer communities, while fighting poverty in an authentic way, by embracing the prison co-op model and providing returning citizens with the resources necessary to form co-ops in the communities to which they return; exactly those communities most in need of real economic solutions. This will convert returning citizens into a workforce that rehabilitates workplace conditions in marginalized communities all across California—reversing a legacy of extraction and exclusion. 


1. Manudeep Bhuller, et all, PDF Incarceration, Recidivism and Employment - National Bureau of Economic …. National Bureau of Employment Research. September 2016

2. Kevin Schnepel, Good Jobs and Recidivism - Kevin Schnepel The University Sydney, Economic Working Papers Series; 2014 - 10.

3. Megan Moriarty, From bars to freedom: prisoner co-ops boost employment, self-esteem and ... Rural Co-operatives; Jan/Feb 2016.

4. Edited by Brown, Carini, Gordon Nembhard, and associates, Co-operatives for Sustainable Communities: Tools to Measure Co ... 2015.