Private employers increasingly tap prison labor force
November 6, 1999
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.
"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.
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