Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Prisoners = Profit

By Anthony Sciarrino

With all the attention that the media has lavished on our national "drug problem," and the painfully slow growth of our economy, it is surprising that so little attention has been paid to one of the fastest growing industries in the U.S., Federal Prison Industries, Inc. (FPI).

In 1974 there were 35 federal prisons, with a total population of only 23,500. Over the next four years that number grew to 30,000. Then, in 1979, the federal prison population declined by more than 10 percent to 26,300. While to the average citizen this trend might seem to reflect a decrease in federal crimes, and therefore be a good thing, to Federal Prison Industries it was a trend that could have seriously affected their plans for the future.

Federal Prison Industries, started in 1934 by an Act of Congress and Executive Order, was originally intended to alleviate the debilitating idleness prisoners suffered in federal penitentiaries. In the beginning FPI barely produced a surplus of goods after serving their own institutional needs. What started out as prison reform eventually turned into profit seeking enterprise. Today Federal Prison Industries is a half billion dollar industry, manufacturing everything from electronic control cables for NASA to office furniture for the Social Security Administration.

Change was slow for the first 45 years of FPI's existence. Then in 1980, neatly coinciding with Reagan's vigorous efforts to wage his drug war, all that changed. In 1978, under the Carter administration, FPI employed 6,500 prisoners and 700 civilians at the 35 federal institutions. By the end of 1992, after 12 years of Republican guidance, there were 103 federal institutions with 113 FPI factories employing more than 16,000 prisoners and 1,500 civilians. This growth was fueled, not by what is perceived by the general public as rampant growth of violent crime, but as a result of the war on drugs.

To quote a 1979 FPI sales brochure, "Anyone who expresses an interest in the system of criminal justice, needs to understand the significant contributions prison industry has made in the past and can offer in the future." With this Freudian slip, FPI was tipping its hand to one of the primary motivations behind the federal government's new found interest in the arrest, conviction, and incarceration of its citizens.

Far from its humble beginnings, and humanitarian intentions, FPI's main concern is expansion. According to an internal document dated June 30, 1993, entitled, "A Vision for the Future," "... the time has come to modify its [FPI] internal functions to operate successfully in any market, with any partner, and with any business... the new marketplace has a requirement that mandates truly competitive requirements for price, quality and customer service."

In an article in the February 1993 issue of Wood & Wood Products, a furniture industry trade publication, "most executives representing the largest U.S. contract furniture makers remain skeptical of a quick turnaround for office and institutional furniture sales." The article goes on to quote John Axel, senior vice president of HON Industries, as saying, "I think that 1993 will be a difficult year of painful recovery for the U.S. economy, and it will affect the U.S. contract furniture industry with company layoffs and people having to find new jobs."

That is everyone except FPI. With their ever growing virtual slave labor force--average pay is 92¢ an hour---FPI's only concern is expanding fast enough to fill the Federal Government's ever increasing demands. In the contract furniture industry, one of FPI's largest divisions, the average annual sales volume in 1992 of the 25 largest private companies was $211 million. FPI's sales rivals any of these companies and with their planned expansion will soon dwarf them all.

According to the Monday Morning Highlights, a federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) publication, on July 22, 1993, a conference of representatives "from private industry, organized labor, the Federal Prison System, Correctional staff, the Justice Department and other interested parties was held in Washington D.C. This summit was the outcome of a process begun in 1990, when Congress directed FPI to commission an independent study of FPI's impact on private business and labor." "The study, conducted by the accounting firm of Deloitte and Touche, concluded that FPI's operations do not have an undue impact on the furniture... industry. The study went on to add, that with the substantial increase in prison population, FPI employment must also increase. This further expansion... of FPI in existing product lines would adversely impact the private sector."

Keeping in mind that present legislation mandates that FPI sales be restricted to federal government agencies, it is interesting to note some of the ways suggested by Deloitte and Touche to increase inmate employment. They recommended: "Legislation permitting FPI to manufacture and sell on the open market products that are currently produced offshore, and mandatory set-aside legislation for FPI requiring private sector government contractors to subcontract a portion of their awards to FPI."

There are many ways to lessen the impact FPI has on private industry, including limiting any new expansion of prison industry to noncompetitive areas of operation, such as recycling. Also, raising the pay for prisoners employed in industries that compete directly with private enterprises to the minimum wage would force FPI onto a level playing field with the private sector.

An even more effective means of reducing the need for employing prisoners would be to rethink the drug enforcement policies pursued by the federal government. There is little wisdom in any policy that creates more problems than it solves.

Reprinted from Z Magazine

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login