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Private employers increasingly tap prison labor force

prison worker
Businesses such as Furniture Medic are increasingly turning to prison labor to fill jobs  

November 6, 1999
Web posted at: 8:42 p.m. EST (0142 GMT)

In this story:

37 states in program

ACLU voices concerns


From Reporter Kathleen Koch

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A new employment trend is emerging, in part because of the tight labor market. Private companies are increasingly turning to prison labor to fill jobs no one else wants.

Prison-industry partnerships are up 200 percent since they began in 1979, with roughly 2,500 inmates nationwide working for businesses like Furniture Medic.

"I have to admit I was a little surprised at how good the product was. They did a sample for us and we were very pleased," said company owner Michael O'Dea.

37 states in program

Thirty-seven states participate in the work program, which has earned the praise of prison officials.

Crime and punishment

"Keeping inmates busy helps us internally to manage the institution a lot better. Idle time is not a good thing in a prison," said Pete Waters, warden of the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown, Maryland.

Prisoners are paid at least minimum wage, after deductions for incarceration costs, family support and victim compensation.

Such partnerships are highly regulated, but Congress is considering a bill to streamline the process, allowing more companies to use the captive labor force.

"It's logical to me to have Americans working, whether they are prisoners or not, before you go overseas to bring foreign workers back into this country," said Rep. Bill McCollum, a Republican from Florida.

But critics warn the expansion could lead to abuse. "It's an effort by firms to find the worker who's easiest to exploit, who they don't have to pay benefits, who can drive wages down," warns David Smith of the AFL-CIO.

ACLU voices concerns

Kara Gotsch of the American Civil Liberties Union also has concerns. "We don't want private industry to become dependent on inmates. Because then that will just become part of continuing our increased incarceration rates."

States involved in the program say it cuts repeat offenses anywhere from 26 percent to 60 percent. Inmates insist it prepares them for life outside.

"Really it's benefiting us. It gives us an opportunity to gain those skills that are going to be necessary when you get out of here," inmate Mark Rowley said.

Another prisoner, Daniel Hendricks, agrees: "In the event I am released I can go out there and get a job and I already know their products. That's not something I got to learn."

Such prison-industry programs are expected to continue to thrive as long as the labor market remains tight and the prison population continues to rise.

Florida invites media to inspect prisons after inmate death
August 19, 1999
Prison populations up, but rate of growth drops
August 15, 1999
Report: Federal inmates use phones for murder, fraud, drug deals
August 12, 1999
'Torture, plain and simple': Amnesty International reports abuse in women's prisons
March 4, 1999
U.S. accused of human rights abuses in prisons
October 5, 1998
Clinton Administration targets inmate drug use
January 5, 1999

U.S. Department of Justice
  • Bureau of Justice Statistics Prison Statistics
Federal Bureau of Prisons
Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics
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