Inside jobs

Debate breaks out over bids to expand prison labor for private firms

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Every morning, Bill Neighbors, a tall, mustachioed 40-year-old, makes his morning commute to his job as a metalworker.

But there is no rush-hour traffic to beat. For Mr. Neighbors, who has served 21 years for first-degree murder, the commute entails being moved from his prison cell at the Monroe (Wash.) Correctional Complex (MCC) to his in-prison job crafting aluminum and steel products.

"I was just a kid when I came in," he says.

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Two years from now, Neighbors will be a free man.

He says he looks forward to living in his own place, acquired with money from his $7.50-per-hour prison job.

Neighbors is among the 80,000 to 90,000 state prisoners nationwide engaged in some kind of prison labor. But while most prison work benefits the public sector, Neighbors works for a private company - Elliott Bay Manufacturing. Currently, only 3,555 prisoners - all at state facilities - are employed by private firms nationwide.

Legislation introduced in Congress this spring would allow federal prisoners to work for private firms as well, touching off a debate over fair competition.

The rehabilitative benefits of these kinds of private-public business partnerships are widely touted by prison-labor advocates. And nowhere has support for prison labor been as strong as in the Pacific Northwest.

"We want to make sure that when these folks come back out into our community, they don't recidivate," says Howard Yarbrough, the director of Correctional Industries (CI), a division of the Washington Department of Corrections.

Washington State employs a larger percentage of prisoners than any other state, at least partly as a result of a 1993 state law that called for steady increases in the number of inmates employed in prison industries. Almost 70 percent of Washington's 15,000 prisoners now work in some kind of prison job.

Nearly 450 prisoners are employed by 17 private-sector companies allowed to set up shop within the state's various correctional facilities. Another 2,200 produce goods and services for tax-supported agencies and nonprofit organizations.

But questions are being raised about the true intent, cost, and benefit of state- or business-run industries inside prison walls - and whether prisoners should work for private companies at all.

The MicroJet case

In 1999, a group of small-business owners in the water-jet cutting industry sued CI and a private company, MicroJet, alleging they were hurt economically because of the low bids MicroJet was able to offer as a result of using prison labor.

But the Washington Water Jet Workers Association dropped that lawsuit earlier this year in order to focus its efforts on an appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Its assertion: The employment of prisoners by private companies violates the state Constitution.

The Constitution "is designed to prevent the situation we now face, where private companies are benefiting from the labor of inmates," says Richard Stephens of the Bellevue, Wash.-based law firm Groen, Stephens & Klinge, representing the group of water-jet cutters.

One of the companies among the plaintiffs has already gone out of business, while others say they are trying to scale down or branch out into other industries to make ends meet.

The free rent and subsidized utilities provided by the state to companies like MicroJet create an unfair competitive advantage, says John Swapp, president of one of the plaintiff companies, JetPoint.

Mr. Swapp says his workers are paid between $12 and $20 per hour, and receive medical benefits as well as paid sick time and vacation. By comparison, he complains, MicroJet pays lower wages, while the state provides medical care (and no paid sick or vacation time) for inmates.

Swapp adds that MicroJet's bids are 30 to 40 percent lower than those of the water-jet cutting companies on the "outside."

But MicroJet president Kenneth Piel brushes off allegations that his shop has an unfair competitive advantage.

"This is a good program, and it's been looked at from every angle," he says, standing next to a water-jet cutting machine in the company's spacious prison shop. "It has a lot of value, and it's as fair as we can make it."

Competitive wages?

While Mr. Piel declined to cite the wages paid to his 19 prison employees, private companies are federally mandated to pay prison workers wages that are not less than those paid for work of a similar nature in the locality in which the work is performed.

Other private employers of prisoners say they pay hourly wages ranging from $6.72 to $12 per hour, of which inmates keep roughly 30 percent after taxes and deductions for room and board, legal obligations, crime-victim funds, and a mandatory savings account.

Mike DeGraff, president of A&I Manufacturing, a company that manufactures mini-blinds and similar products at MCC, points out that one of his main competitors currently uses overseas labor.

"We're competing against China and Mexico," says Mr. DeGraff.

Mr. Yarbrough of CI also notes that companies like A&I suffer some loss of productivity due to mandatory security measures, pat downs, head counts, and delays in the transportation of goods in and out of the prison.

The profitability of inmate labor still appears to outweigh the daily hassles of running a prison shop for this particular set of employers, some observers say.

"[The prisoners] work harder than anybody else I've ever worked with in this field," says Scott Bernhardt of Sierra Manufacturing, a company that manufactures boat lifts at Twin Rivers Corrections Center (TRCC) in Monroe. "They're better behaved, because they have to be."

John Borchert, general manager of Array Corp., which owns the Prison Blues clothing line, based at the medium-security Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution, says he can attest to the psychological benefits of labor for prisoners.

"You can't imagine what a benefit it is for a prisoner to be able to go to a brightly lit factory and to be part of a team," says Mr. Borchert.

A "likelihood of exploitation"

In 1994, Oregon citizens passed Measure 17, requiring inmates to be at work or in on-the-job training programs 40 hours each week.

An Oregon Department of Correction semi-independent business, Inside Oregon Enterprises, set about building a viable workforce of prison laborers.

Despite opposition from a coalition of labor unions, who complained about the loss of jobs to prison shops, 85 percent of the prison population is now working in some capacity.

At the Prison Blues shop, says Borchert, prisoners are paid an average of $6.80 per hour. Prisoners keep only 20 percent after mandatory deductions. Still, Borchert points out, there is a three-year waiting list of prisoners who want to work for Prison Blues.

But the perceived enthusiasm of prisoners lends an artificially rosy glow to the real scenario of prison labor, critics charge.

Kara Gotsch, public policy coordinator of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, says prison labor has a "strong likelihood of exploitation."

Although the ACLU supports vocational training and employment for prisoners, Ms. Gotsch notes that inmates who labor in state-run shops - not covered by federal pay-equity laws imposed on private businesses - earn pennies per hour for their labor.

In Washington State, for instance, prisoners working for state-run shops earn $0.35 to $1.10 per hour in the form of a "gratuity," before deductions are taken out.

Federal prisoners earn $0.23 to $1.15 before mandatory 50 percent deductions, while most other states pay inmates a similar range of wages or, in the case of the Texas state prison system, no wage at all.

"If you're having prisoners involved in labor programs ... they should be paid minimum wage or the prevailing wage for that industry," says Gotsch. "If you're paying someone pennies per hour for their work, how can it be justified to charge someone for their stay in prison?"

The long waiting lists to join prison industries simply speak to the fact that prisoners are desperate to make even a little bit of money, says Paul Wright, the editor of the prisoner-run publication, Prison Legal News.

In the absence of serious rehabilitation programs in most prisons, he says, prisoners want to do anything to get through their otherwise long days behind bars.

Mr. Wright, who is serving a sentence for first-degree murder at the McNeil Island Corrections Center in Steilacoom, Wash., has been one of the state's most vocal critics of prison labor.

"If they were offering to pay prisoners for pouring dioxin on their skin, you'd have people lined up for it," he says.

Fundamentally, asserts Wright, the growth of prison labor has more to do with the "tough on crime" political rhetoric than with any genuine effort toward rehabilitation. "If [prison labor] is wrong in China, it's wrong in the US."

Grateful to be working

Interviews with numerous prisoners and even shop managers in MCC's prison shops seem to indicate that prisoners are grateful to get out of their cells, even for low-paid work.

"It sure beats sittin' in the house," affirms L.J. Sarot, industries manager for MCC's print shop.

While some prisoners say they would use their acquired skills to pursue similar jobs on the outside, many others whisper comments about their discontentment with providing "slave labor."

No matter what their pay, prison jobs have the important effects of making inmates less aggressive in prison, and more employable once they are released, says Yarbrough of CI.

A 16-year study of federal inmates has demonstrated that participation in prison jobs or vocational training makes prisoners 24 percent less likely to recidivate than prisoners who did not participate in such programs.

Yet at MCC and TRCC, almost every prisoner interviewed by the Monitor was serving a long-term sentence for murder or a serious sexual offense. While some prisoners expected to be released in the next few years, numerous prisoners were serving life without parole.

Yarbrough explains that the process for selecting prisoners is not based on the proximity of a prisoner's release date, but on an absence of major infractions, a clean drug test, and a minimum of a ninth-grade education equivalency.

Prisoners who meet this criteria and who want to work in prison shops put their names in a pool, and those names are made available to employers, who interview potential employees.

"Even the 'life withouts' need work," notes Chris Michaelson of Elliott Bay Manufacturing. "Otherwise, they are a very dangerous population. It's part of a tool to keep violence away from these places, and it works."

Will that success carry out across prison walls, helping former inmates land jobs? The jury's still out, says Bruce Western, a professor of sociology at Princeton University. Research, he adds, has focused on recidivism, and not employment.

"But I would like to believe that [prison jobs] can have some positive effect," he says, "because money for well-designed programs has really dried up, and the life chances of prisoners depend on some rehabilitation on the inside."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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