'Made in USA' ... but By Convicts

A growing number of businesses see cheap, untapped labor pool in nation's prisons.

From the outside, Broward Correctional Institution doesn't look anything like a flourishing island of capitalistic enterprise.

Located beside the county dump at the edge of Florida's Everglades, the women's prison is ringed by 20-foot-high chain-link fences and coils of razor wire. Here, the state confines its worst female criminal convicts.

Some folks look at these inmates and see a collection of dangerous and uneducated misfits. Ron Gudehus sees something entirely different - potential.

For the past decade, Mr. Gudehus has transformed convicts into skilled employees who work at a full-service optical laboratory in the very heart of this maximum-security prison.

It is not make-work to keep prisoners occupied between meals. Broward Optical is a profitable business with real customers, real deadlines, real quality controls, and a bottom line.

Although controversial, the business activity here can help stanch the flow of US jobs to Mexico, the Caribbean, and other cheap labor markets overseas, say some .economists and officials. They advocate doing on a national level what Gudehus is doing at Broward Correctional - seeing the country's 1.2 million inmates as potential national assets, rather than liabilities.

Currently, only 1 in 10 prisoners in the US works for pay. But they receive low wages - what prisons are willing to pay. That's usually well below the minimum wage.

But for the 2,400 inmates who work for the private sector - like those at Broward - pay is much better. They get the prevailing wage for products they produce. In Connecticut, that means the baseball caps used every year in the Little League World Series. In South Carolina, it's graduation gowns, cables, and furniture. And in Arizona, women prisoners are hired to take hotel reservations.

"There is just an awful lot of untapped human potential there," says Morgan Reynolds, an economist at Texas A&M and a fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis in Dallas.

With the prison population reaching record highs and US unemployment at record lows, Mr. Reynolds and other analysts are asking whether a large concentration of available workers in prisons might help keep US manufacturing and other jobs in the US.

When GEONEX, a computer mapping company based in St. Petersburg, Fla., was competing for a major project for an international telephone company recently, executives considered hiring workers in Pakistan or India to input computer data.

But they went instead to Liberty Correctional Institution near Tallahassee, where today American prisoners are performing the work. In addition to training and a regular paycheck, some 80 inmates on the project can expect at least a $25,000-a-year job doing similar work when they are released.

"We are giving these people a skill set so that when they do get out they are going to be productive," says Kenneth Mellem, president of GEONEX.

Reynolds says the vast majority of prisoners would gladly work for a paycheck if given the opportunity.

Sylvia Kee agrees. Ms. Kee, who is serving a life prison sentence, has worked at Broward Optical for 12 years. She is one of only 54 inmates employed in the 14-year-old business. But she says 90 percent of the 600 inmates at her prison want to work in the optical lab. It is the only program of its type in the prison.

BUT the use of prison-based labor for private enterprise is controversial. Labor union officials and some industry groups say prison-based industries result in unfair competition and take jobs from law-abiding workers. Some critics call it a new form of slavery and warn of the establishment of American gulags.

The prison industries movement "uses incarceration as the remedy of choice for poverty, unemployment, poor education, and racism," writes Paul Wright, a prisoner in Washington State and editor of Prison Legal News. "If you've lost your job in manufacturing, garment or furniture fabrication, telemarketing or packaging, it could have simply been sentenced to prison."

Advocates of employing and paying inmates counter that the current system of human warehouses that does little to prepare prisoners to make honest livings upon release. Learning a trade like lensmaking or computer data input, and being paid a regular wage, are far different than earning 15 cents an hour to mop prison floors or wash prison dishes, they say.

"If you can help people develop the right kind of attitude about work - a healthy, positive work ethic - it will go a long way in helping them once they get out," says Pamela Davis, president of PRIDE Enterprises, a nonprofit firm that promotes and runs prison industry programs throughout Florida. Broward Optical is a division of PRIDE.

To prevent adverse impacts on workers outside prison, most prison-based businesses are restricted by law to supplying products only to public agencies. In a few cases, prison-made products and services may enter broader markets when they don't directly compete with other existing businesses.

Reynolds says the best answer to critics' concerns about prison labor would be to permit open competition to employ inmates. Those companies willing to take the risks and train the inmates should reap the economic rewards. At the same time, he says, inmate wages would be bid up, reducing the gap between in-prison wages and nonprison wages.

Reynolds calculates that if half of all prisoners worked in market-type jobs for five years, earning $7 an hour in full-time employment, they could boost the nation's gross domestic product by $20 billion. Prison-based industries would have a ripple effect in their communities, as they tap local suppliers and other services, advocates say.

Inmates who work contribute as much as 80 percent of their earnings to pay room and board at prison, family support, and taxes. They also pay restitution to crime victims.

For many, their prison jobs are the first time in their lives they've been members of a team, given responsibilities, trusted, and rewarded for jobs well done.

In a way it is a little taste of freedom. "I feel like when I am on the job I leave the prison out there," says Kee. "I always know where I am," she adds quickly, "but when I come in here I come in to give them the best of myself."

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