The rise of a cellblock work force

Your next telemarketer could be calling from inside prison.

Kevin Cindric chose not to walk in his father's path. In fact, he fell away from it headfirst.

Mr. Cindric helped stage a 1986 robbery that went awry when his accomplice killed a homeowner. Convicted of second-degree murder, Cindric has spent the past 12 years in prison.

Today, amid the flash of welding torches and slam of metal presses, Cindric is remaking himself. He's learning his father's trade - die setting - while working at a prison metal shop.

Pointing to a turnaround by working inmates like Cindric, executives, politicians, and prison-industry officials are trying to expand job opportunities behind bars. Factory work, they say, helps reform inmates, generates compensation for crime victims, and enables business to make productive thousands of idle workers.

"My father has done this on the outside for 34 years," says Cindric, who sends some pay home to his parents, and says his work gives them peace of mind. "When I get out in three years I figure I can make $16 an hour."

The push for prison industry rides powerful trends: a labor market tighter than any time in a quarter century, a surge in the number of imprisoned Americans, and the spread of market forces into spheres long reserved for government.

This decade, champions of privatization have farmed out many public tasks to private enterprise with promises of efficiency and budget austerity. But critics say that without tight regulation, the profit motive could provoke abuse of the ultimate form of "captive labor."

Already, critics decry the robust growth in the number of privately run prisons and the rise of a "prison-industrial complex." Such a self-generating force of officials, executives, and shareholders will, in its push for profit, condone higher rates of imprisonment and longer jail terms, say some inmate advocates, labor activists, and other critics.

A tilted playing field?

Moreover, such critics warn that cheap prison labor will push private businesses into bankruptcy and law-abiding people out of jobs and possibly into crime.

"Private industry, using law-abiding workers, would be forced to compete for contracts ... on a playing field tilted toward inmates," says Rep. Pete Hoekstra (D) of Michigan. "American workers may lose their jobs to felons."

Under current proposals, job growth in state and federal prisons would surge. First, the government's manager of inmate workers - Federal Prison Industries - aims to compel companies that contract with the federal government, and some squarely in the private sector, to buy its goods and services.

Also, a bill soon to be introduced in Congress would allow state and federal prisons to offer prison labor on a large scale to private companies. And for the first time prison-made goods could be sold on the open market, rather than just to government offices or nonprofits.

The programs would mobilize a large and expanding force of would-be workers. The US prison population has doubled in the past decade to more than 1.2 million. But only 19 percent of 120,000 federal prisoners and 6 percent of 1.1 million state prisoners work in behind-bars industry. Their jobs range from telemarketing to the manufacture of such products as furniture, swimsuits, and auto parts. Up to half of all inmates could be employed, according to many estimates.

Working inmates go straight

The benefits from expanded prison labor are clear. Less idleness means less wrongdoing, so prisons are safer and easier to control. And after they leave prison, inmates involved in industries are about 20 percent less likely to commit another crime than other convicts, according to a Federal Bureau of Prisons study.

With new training and solid work habits they apparently are better able to get and keep a job. (See story at left.)

"The thrust of the legislation is to reduce recidivism," says Rep. Bill McCollum (R) of Florida, who intends to propose a bill soon expanding prison industries.

Working inmates can partially compensate the sufferers from crime, including 2.2 million unsupported children and the estimated 1 million women raising them. Under a limited program in which states contract out prison labor to private firms, officials divert much of an inmate's minimum-wage pay to victims and inmate families.

Also, expanded prison labor would help offset the spiraling costs to the criminal justice system from the boom in incarceration. And it would help companies looking for workers.

But "factories within fences" also pose risks. The workshops could indirectly spur the crime rate by taking jobs away from outside labor. Many private businesses would fold when pitted against the subsidized prison workplaces, say critics. (See story page 16, bottom.)

Also, inmates lack the rights and protections of unionized workers. Workplace disputes could prove too complex and nettlesome for the prison grievance system, say critics.

In any labor/management talks "all parties have to have an independent source of power, otherwise it gets to be more like duress than bargaining," says Ray Marshall, Labor Secretary during the Carter administration.

History also poses a warning. Poor regulation of private involvement in prison labor has at times led to abuse. Early this century public outrage and small-business pressure inspired laws restricting private-sector prison employment and interstate trade in prison-made goods.

An incentive for jailers?

But the most extreme concern is that private hiring of prison labor could whip up incentives for incarceration. Prisons would depend on the revenue. Shareholders in corporations profiting from prison labor could condone longer sentences and other measures to expand their work force. Taxpayers would welcome savings from a faster-moving criminal justice system. In short, critics say, the system would build upon itself.

"The people who build prisons, the people who run the prisons, the politicians who benefit from building prisons - you put it all together and you have a powerful force to perpetuate the system," says Mr. Marshall, now a professor emeritus in economics and public affairs at the University of Texas.

Mr. McCollum disagrees, calling such warnings "really a stretch."

"You've got to think about the alternative," says inmate Cindric. Speaking in a voice unusually soft for a burly Navy veteran, he says, "right now you've got thousands of guys going to waste, sitting around and doing nothing."

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