Boom economy taps prison labor

The private sector is short of workers, but are cellblocks the right place to look?

The room could be anywhere in corporate America. Fans hum, soldering irons sizzle, wire cutters snip.

But the women who assemble computer components here are doing time for murder, drug pushing, embezzlement.

"I'm a seven-time loser," says Cathy Ramirez, a convicted drug-seller working at this state project at the Central California Women's Facility. "But this time around, I'll have some money and a job waiting for me when I get out, so I won't come back for the eighth time."

Such jobs increasingly are providing more than just training and hope for inmates. In a booming US economy hungry for workers of all kinds, prisons represent a vast pool of workers. And growing numbers of them, 80,000 at present, are being tapped for work - in the private-sector as well as making license plates.

But amid calls for expanded inmate employment, an enduring debate is coming into sharper focus: Should prison labor be welcomed as a tool of rehabilitation and economic growth, or does it steal jobs from law-abiding Americans?

Prison officials and civil libertarians say the issue is a no-brainer: Keep inmates out of trouble while building job skills and work habits. But a growing chorus of politicians, unions, and business leaders is saying "hold your computer harness - watch who you're putting out of work."

"The US economy is so hot and employers so desperate that these captive pools of low-wage workers suddenly look extremely appealing," says Barbara Auerbach, manager of a US Justice Department program that regulates prison labor. "But there are very many people ... who are not happy about it because of the fear of unfair competition. The conflict is forcing a major debate."

To some, America's record-high inmate population makes prisons a natural place to turn to ease the economy's labor crunch.

The appeal of prison labor is simple. It costs less. In traditional prison jobs, for example, inmates work for pennies making clothing, furniture, and other items for government agencies.

The new and growing issue lies with private-sector industries. In these, despite laws that require inmates to make the "prevailing wage" for a given commodity, wages often end up close to the federal minimum, because contractors admit that prison labor is untrained and turnover high.

Those who employ convicts also save bundles in health insurance, unemployment insurance, payroll and Social Security taxes, workers compensation, and vacation time.

Such advantages have paved the way for 30 states over the past 20 years to enact laws permitting the use of convict labor by private enterprise. Prisoners now help consumers book airline tickets, pack and ship computer software, and stock Christmas toys. Windfall profits from prison labor have led to a boom in the building of private prisons.

"Prison labor has been a fabulous success for us," says Jack Cleveland of Server Technologies, which employs inmates at the Central California Women's Facility to make computer components. "The workforce can expand and contract to our needs ... which saves us a lot."

The program also dramatically lowers the likelihood of repeat offenses: only 6 percent for those in the program, compared with more than 60 percent for the prison as a whole.

The prisoners make minimum wage ($5.75 an hour), with earnings split between paying room and board, victim's restitution, family, and savings.

But the effort's flip side is concern over competition and jobs.

"When Oregon state prisons got into my business, it basically dried up the entire private market," says John Palatiello, president of the Management Association for Private Photogrammetric Surveyors, whose member firms design electronic maps. "There are no longer any private firms doing the work that Oregon prisoners are now doing. They basically created a monopoly."

Such concerns were not as much at issue when the number of US prisoners wasn't so high. The number of inmates has grown from 1.2 million to 2 million in the past eight years. About 80,000 now hold conventional jobs, earning from 25 cents to $7 per hour - mostly for government but also for private industry. And the number of private-sector programs has doubled since 1995.

"This is a serious problem that is poised to explode into a bigger problem," says Gordon Lafer, a political scientist at the University of Oregon. "Until there is a change in the number and severity of mandatory sentencing laws, we are going to see rising political pressure to keep prison labor from swamping free labor."

Prison officials say the growing stream of inmates will create discipline problems if they have nothing to do. But many labor and business officials say the unlevel playing field promises to destroy more free-labor jobs.

"Prisoners should never be used in competition with free labor or to replace free labor," says Greg Woodhead, a senior economist at the AFL-CIO.

Too often, he says, a prison job gained is a civilian job lost. Fabray Gloves of Wisconsin, for instance, shut down its free-market operations in that state after it won a contract using prison labor. In Georgia, a recycling operation by prisoners unwittingly scuttled jobs for people transitioning from welfare to work.

A final beef, brought out in recent congressional hearings, is that work programs ignore prisoners' deeper needs: for education, drug-abuse programs, and general behavioral counseling.

"Having prisoners make furniture or computer parts or whatever all day long may help wardens deal with discipline issues, but it is not helping the prisoners with what they really need," says Joe Tyson, a lobbyist for the US Chamber of Commerce.

While many states grapple with how to balance both sets of concerns, two bills in Congress are coming at the issue from different angles.

One, offered by Michigan Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R), would curtail a federal program which mandates that federal agencies buy prison-made products. A second, by Florida's Bill McCollum (R), would allow the Federal Bureau of Prisons to include more private-sector jobs. A combined bill could mandate that state-run prison programs better compete with private companies and allow companies to hire federal inmates.

Many observers call for society-wide debate on prison labor.

"That issue needs to be confronted head-on in a dispassionate sense by those [who don't] stand to win and lose directly," says Steve Schwalb, CEO of Federal Prison Industries, which employs about 20,000 prisoners.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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