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

Prison Labor Losing Popularity in Oregon

Since the 19th century prisoners
in Oregon have literally labored under a policy that insisted prisoners should work as hard as taxpayers. But the prevailing philosophy is falling prey to fiscal realities. Oregon's evaporating economy has enhanced employment concerns among its citizens, even as prison employment prospers. Oregon's jobless rate, the highest in the nation, is 125,000 and climbing. And while an economic recession is to blame for employment woes, prisoners, not surprisingly, become the scapegoats.

It seems that Oregonians are adamant about putting prisoners to work. In 1994, voters approved a measure, by 71 percent, mandating that all prisoners either work full-time or be engaged in on-the-job training. Consequently, using prisoners as a source of cheap labor added 511 full-time jobs to the Oregon prison system in 2002.

Prisoners are being used both inside and outside the walls to work in hospitals, laundries, lumber mills, and nurseries. Some jobs are as sophisticated as doing computer-aided map-making for public industries. In general, such jobs represent a savings of around 40 percent over the cost of free-world labor.

American Linen, a laundry company, lost a contract to a cheaper bid by an Oregon prison. The loss, according to general manager Bill Inge, forced the company to lay off 24 workers. "When the economy is good it's not an issue," said Inge. But "when the economy is bad and stays bad for a prolonged period of time, it becomes more of an issue."

The dilemma has a few state officials in a frenzy. Former gubenatorial candidate Kevin Mannix is concerned about the strain prison-labor crews might have on free-world citizens. "[As] we head into tight economic times, we should go in another direction, and use prison work crews to do work that the public sector can't afford to do," he said. But he does believe that corrections officials have "made a good faith effort" to do this.

In deference to public concern, the Oregon Corrections Department has begun to implement measures that would decrease the prisons' competition for free-world jobs. Debra Slater, administrator of Prisoner Work Programs for the Corrections Department, instructed prison officials to ask a prepared set of questions designed to ensure that non-incarcerated citizens have been given first crack at private-sector jobs. In December 2001, correction officials curtailed an arrangement that supplied up to 60 prisoners a day to work at two separate lumber mills. Slater says that they don't want to "end up taking away from folks in the community."

However, economist Art Ayers says that, in spite of its considerable growth during the late 1990's, the prison workforce is too small to have an appreciable impact on the job market. From 1999-2001, Oregon prisoners worked a total of 1.14 million hours on jobs outside the penitentiary. That's the equivalent of only 296 full-time jobs over a two year period. Additionally, most of the work comes from state and federal agencies, cities, counties, school districts, and port districts.

Ron Kilgore, operations manager for Inside Oregon Enterprises, points out that most of the work done by prisoners is done behind prison walls and has little effect on jobs outside. He also points out that even though prisoners only make about $3.00 a day the cost of guards and the lack of automation offset any subsequent savings in most cases. "If you look at our direct labor costs as a percentage of revenue, we definitely don't have an advantage. I actually had better direct labor costs at some of the factories I managed in the private sector," he says. While it does handle some private businesses, the bulk of the work supplied by Inside Oregon Enterprises comes from government agencies. Prisoners make furniture, signs, picnic tables for state parks, and even security-doors and windows for the prisons. And while the prisons have lost some business over the last few months they have managed to maintain 79-83 percent full-time employment for its work-eligible prisoners.

Concerns have caused the AFL-CIO to propose measures that would prohibit prison work programs that threaten or diminish the sale of goods and services by the private sector, employment opportunities for the developmentally disabled, and employment opportunities for law-abiding citizens.

Lynn-Marie Crider, research and education director for the Oregon AFL-CIO, says that concerns transcend the mere threat of unemployment. She insists that the competition between prison and free-world labor undermines employers' incentives to pay a livable wage. "If you make it possible for an employer to operate by paying $4.00 an hour wages, how do we maintain wages in the community at a level that we can live on?" she asks. Crider is considering a signature drive to force legislative changes.

Private sector employers differ in their views about prison work crews. Like Crider and Mannix, David Moore, vice president and general manager of Instant Labor, says that prison labor crews are a threat. He says that customers "can get a prison crew much cheaper than we can, putting law-abiding citizens to work." Instant Labor lost a contract to destroy and dispose office documents to a prison work crew. "We're seeing more and more first-time (laid-off) employees coming in looking for work. And it's kind of disheartening to turn them away because you're losing accounts to state prisoners."

But not everyone is complaining. "Cost-wise, it was the cheapest way to go," says Kasha Squires, maintenance supervisor for a property management company that hired prisoners to scrape and paint apartment buildings. "We didn't need super-skilled people, we just needed bodies. And that was the best option for us," she said.

Stacy Burke, spokeswoman for Labor Ready employment agency says, "We're aware the work crews are out there but they don't pose a competitive threat to us. We may be working side by side, but it's not a competitive thing."

Realistically, prison labor is responsible for doing much of the work that wouldn't get done otherwise. Prisoners are paid $3.00 a day apiece. The remaining $370 goes for guard's wages and benefits, transportation costs, clothing, and administration. the criteria for prisoners on these crewa are stringent. Sex offenses, assaultiveness, arson, and escape are just four of 23 criteria that can keep a prisoner off the crew.

Gordon Lafer points out what is perhaps the most perplexing part of Oregon's dilemma. Lafer, an assistant professor at the University of Oregon's Labor Education and Research Center, says that Oregon voters feel they were duped by the legislators. "Measure 17 passed by a huge margin and I've talked to a lot of people who say they were fooled," he says. "They wanted inmates to work, but none of them thought they were voting to take jobs away from people on the outside.

Now the problem of Oregon legislators is two-fold: 1) how to make more jobs available to the public in spite of a depressed economy, and 2) how to successfully keep the blame for this current problem on the prisoners. g

Source: The Register-Guard

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