Inmate labor pays off for business, counties
For centuries, the United States has been putting its incarcerated to work. But now a handful of county correctional facilities are marketing their inmate labor as a competitive option for local businesses. At the same time, those facilities also are discovering that keeping inmates’ hands busy promotes a more peaceful prison, reduces the taxpayer burden and gives prisoners job opportunities after their release.
“A lot of work is being sent overseas, and U.S. companies must become competitive,” says Dennis Harris, director of Utah County, Utah’s Jail Industries. “Inmate labor is an untapped resource that can help companies do that.”
Countless correctional facilities employ inmates to clean floors, mend uniforms and churn out license plates for dollars a day. The goods produced by no- or low-wage labor, however, can be purchased only by state agencies and non-profit groups. But the Prison Industry Enhancement (PIE) Certification Program, controlled by the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) and the National Correctional Industries Association (NCIA), lifts such restrictions. Under PIE, BJA requires that inmates be paid a comparable industry wage; receive benefits, such as Social Security, Medicare and workers’ compensation; and pocket at least 20 percent of gross earnings. The remaining 80 percent goes to room and board, taxes, family support and victim compensation funds.
While BJA has certified 38 PIE programs, Hennepin County, Minn., is one of only four counties to receive the designation for its adult correctional facility and 35,000-square-foot work area. Known as ACF Industries, the prison’s in-house work group packages and assembles products for local businesses experiencing surges in production.
Kevin Simondet, the company’s director, says that the jail, which primarily competes with temporary agencies for the jobs, offers a more reliable workforce. Because the jobs are coveted, inmates rarely take off for sick days and never have to leave early to pick up their kids from school. “Budgets are being crunched and this has a huge social and cost benefit,” Simondet says. “I can really see this growing, but capital start-up is a problem.”
Building a facility, for instance, can be a significant initial cost, which is why Utah County sends approximately 40 to 70 carefully selected inmates each day to nearby manufacturing businesses through its Jail Industries program. But Harris says that finding employers willing to bring inmates into their facilities is one of the main challenges. “Businesses don’t want prisoners in the facility because they carry a stigma of being bad people.” After hiring Jail Industries workers, however, businesses have commented on their above-average productivity, he says. Some inmates even have been hired after their release.
On-site employers of the incarcerated do not have to pay health benefits, which can be a significant cost saving. Harris and other program directors, though, must ensure they are not taking work from “free world” workers. PIE requires that jurisdictions notify local unions and the Chamber of Commerce before establishing a prison labor program.
Barbara Auerbach, PIE technical coordinator for NCIA, says that, in general, when the economy is booming the programs have been working well, but when the economy suffers, they are the first to go. Despite the monetary benefits, some businesses are still initially wary to trust their work to inmates. For that reason, both Hennepin and Utah County correctional facilities’ primary customers are local businesses with cyclical or variable production cycles that require a constantly fluctuating number of workers — something difficult to find in the “free world.”
Harris says more employers should give inmates a chance. “When you put these guys on the streets in desperate measures, with no money for food or rent, what do you expect them to do?”
From December 1979 through June 30, 2004, jurisdictions participating in the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program have paid the following wages and collected the following amounts:
|Victim program deductions:||$27,944,617|
|Room and board deductions:||$82,055,020|
|Family support deductions:||$17,949,878|
Source: Baltimore-based National Correctional Industries Association