BOSTON — PRISON work programs generally suffer during a recession. This is not the case in Massachusetts.Republican Gov. William Weld, a former federal prosecutor, plans to greatly expand the use of county and state prisoners to maintain the state's highway system and perform routine maintenance on state and municipally owned property, from courthouses to cemeteries. Although inmate labor outside prison walls is widespread in many Southern and rural states, it is uncommon in the industrial and highly unionized Northeast. Corrections departments in many cash-short states are closely watching the Massachusetts effort, say national corrections officials. The effort is bitterly opposed by private and public employee unions here.
Political liability High unemployment makes the appearance, let alone the reality, of job loss by civilian workers to inmates a political liability, says John DiIulio, a corrections management expert and professor of public affairs at Princeton University. And when state and local budgets are trimmed due to a recession, he says, it is difficult for elected officials to justify scarce resources going to rehabilitate criminals. "It has been tried before, people collecting leaves on state highways, and it is not that productive," says Ed Gilloly, spokesman for the National Association of Government Employees (NAGE) in Massachusetts, especially if you factor in the effect it has on regular employee morale. Such reasoning carries little weight with the Weld administration, says Charles McDonald, spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Public Safety. "There is yet to be any evidence that any state worker has been put out of work," he says. "At a time when all of us [in state government] are making do, are facing cutbacks, this is viewed as productive labor coming from inmates who would otherwise be doing nothing." Inmates do work that is not being done and is most likely not going to be done due to a shortage of public funds, he says. "It's a good idea, but I'd improve on it," says Ken Schoen, former Minnesota commissioner of corrections, now director of justice programs at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation in New York City. Why have these inmates in prison at all, he asks? "We must not use prisons for symbolic purposes. They should be used for people we simply do not want on the streets," says Mr. Schoen. If inmates can be trusted to work outside prison on a daily basis, some form of alternative sentencing and electronic monitoring would make much more sense and provide the financial savings which is one of the goals in the first place, he says. The largest employer of inmate labor is the federal government's Bureau of Prisons. Of the 64,000 federal inmates, roughly 25 percent work for UNICOR, a legal entity created by Congress to bid on, and contract for, manufacturing work from the federal government itself. UNICOR's total sales in fiscal year 1990 were $334 million. A study done by the accounting firm Deloitte & Touche for the Bureau of Prisons found that federal inmate labor displaced between 3,725 to 4,275 civilian workers. In the aggregate, and in terms of social investment, "the threat to civilian workers is trivial except, of course to the worker who is displaced," says Mr. DiIulio. But there is no question that having inmates work is better than not doing so, he adds, as long as it is not onerous labor for its own sake.
A contrary view William Noonan thinks it's a bad idea. An electrical foreman who works at the Massachusetts State House and a member of NAGE he asks, "Where's the loyalty to state workers - to people who have never broken the law?" He has not received a pay raise for four years, he says, and views inmate labor as an effort at union-busting. Massachusetts has a variety of community and work-release programs for inmates. The recidivism rate for those who go through community release programs is 18 percent. The rate for the general prison population is 40 percent. There is no intent to "take jobs away from people on the street," says Tim App, director of community corrections. The program in the spotlight comprises 32 ten-inmate crews. Each crew is assigned one correction officer, and they go out almost every day. "Many cities and towns have asked us for additional assistance," says Mr. App, for such chores as litter patrol, cleaning up cemeteries, and small painting projects. The state's mission to protect the public remains in place with any inmate work program, says App. The work crews are carefully screened. Each prisoner involved has served the bulk of his sentence, which minimizes the likelihood of escape attempts, App explains. "Remember, part of this is to prepare the inmate for release," he says.