A Program That Puts Inmates to Work Walks a Fine Line

IT'S Woodrow Ransonette's first job in 21 years. Sentenced to 5,005 years for kidnapping and extortion in the early 1970s, Mr. Ransonette enjoys his new job stamping air conditioning control valves. ``It's a lot better than just sitting in a cell doing nothing,'' he says.

Employed at the new Lockhart Work Program Facility, Ransonette is one of several hundred inmates across the country working under the Prison Industries Enhancement (PIE) program. Begun 14 years ago with seven pilot projects, work programs like the one in Lockhart are expanding rapidly. Within three years, prison officials believe that 32 states will be producing goods and services with inmate labor.

``Factories with fences,'' was how former Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, a proponent of the work programs, believed prisons should be operated. The PIE program, adjudicated by the Department of Justice and the American Correctional Association, allows companies to set up factories inside prison fences for little or no rent.

Currently operating in 23 states from Hawaii to Maine, prison industries are producing goods and services that range from telemarketing to turning out luxury limousines. All workers are volunteers and all earn at least minimum wage, from which they pay state and federal taxes, contribute to a victim restitution fund, and help pay for their room and board. The leftover money is then put into a savings account, from which inmates can send money to their families or use funds when they are released.

To avoid competing with private companies, prison inmates have traditionally been limited in the types of goods they produced. License plates and highway signs were usually made by inmates. But in 1979, Congress created the PIE program, which changed the laws governing inmate labor and allowed prison workers to produce goods that could be shipped across state lines.

``There should be more programs like this,'' says Brenda Youness, owner of Heart's Designs, a children's clothing manufacturer based in Kansas City, Mo., that has used prison workers since 1987. Ms. Youness, who employs 35 people at her regular factories, couldn't find workers who wanted to do embroidery. She now depends on 10 male inmates at the maximum-security Kansas Correctional Facility in Lansing, Kan., to sew embroidered patterns on her clothing.

``We haven't had any problems. The guys are motivated by the fact that they love their jobs and they are really proud of what they do,'' Youness says.

Assistant Warden George Moore, an employee of Wackenhut Corrections Corporation, the private company running the Lockhart facility, says that prison-based industries must walk a fine line. ``We have to be careful that we don't compete unfairly with companies on the outside,'' Mr. Moore said. He adds that under the PIE program, companies must follow the same wage and worker-compensation laws that apply to regular workers.

Prison industry programs have been opposed by labor groups in several states, including California and Washington. While the new facility in Texas has not gained much attention from organized labor, Christopher Cook, spokesman for the Texas AFL-CIO, says the union is opposed to prison industry programs at a time when many Americans are out of work. ``Our trade laws result in sanctions when we find other countries using prison labor,'' Mr. Cook said. ``Why do we prohibit other countries from using prison labor when we are doing it ourselves?''

Despite criticisms, Moore says the work program benefits employers and inmates alike. ``Here, companies have a guaranteed work force. If someone is out sick, we have replacements trained and ready, so there is no down time for a company. Plus, there are no alcohol- or substance-abuse problems and they don't have to worry about inventory loss.''

The longer term goal of the PIE program is to reduce the recidivism rate, which may be the biggest threat to the integrity of the nation's prison system.

While Moore doesn't have any figures to show that prison industry programs will reduce recidivism, he believes that having a real job in prison gives inmates an edge. ``They will have references they can use when they are released,'' Moore says.

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