Two private manufacturing companies have opened shops in Arkansas prisons. Actronix, Inc. employs 65 female prisoners at the McPherson Unit to produce wiring harnesses for medical imaging devices such as MRI machines and CT scanners, while Glove Corp. employs 55 male prisoners from the Pine Bluff Unit to make specialty gloves for firefighters and the military. The Glove Corp. program has met with such success that the company plans to move to the Grimes Unit and hire 15 additional prisoner employees. [See: PLN, Feb. 2009, p.20].
The increased use of prison labor occurred after Arkansas lost a large number of production jobs to overseas outsourcing. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 1999 and 2008 the number of production jobs in the state dropped from 187,000 to 127,000.
Glove Corp. general manager Tony Moore said he was on the verge of reducing production at the company’s factory in Heber Springs when the Arkansas Economic Development Commission (AEDC) suggested that he consider using a Prison Industry Enhancement (PIE) program to hire cheap prisoner labor. ADEC offered an incentive package, and Glove Corp. decided to try it out.
Moore said that working for Glove Corp. was not easy. Prisoners must learn to sew within 1/l6th of an inch on bulky and difficult materials such as Kevlar, and sometimes must sew blind when the material bunches up and blocks their view of the needle. The prisoners work 10-hour days Monday through Thursday and have only a 30-minute lunch break. Supervisors track production quotas that must be met.
Nonetheless, Moore counts the PIE program as an unbridled success for his company. “We have people who are going to turn up for work every day. They’re not going to take Monday off,” he said.
Additionally, Moore noted that he saves on turnover expenses. In 2007, his company went through 180 employees just to have 30 available to manufacture 60,000 gloves. The turnover costs were about $156,000. “There is an element in the American economy that really doesn’t see working in a production factory as work they want to do,” said Moore.
However, the turnover problems disappeared with the PIE program. Presumably this means that the most tedious and difficult jobs are given to prisoners, who are glad for the work because the wages are higher than other types of prison employment.
Moore also believes the work experience is rehabilitative. Disciplinary problems are rare, and only three prisoners have been removed from the program during its two-year run. “When they finish a 10-hour day, they are pretty tired. It is an honest tired. It changes their outlook. They have an air about them now, they have their self-esteem,” Moore observed.
Mark Wood, senior vice-president of Actronix, touted the advantages to his company in stabilizing its freeworld work force through the use of a PIE program.
“We use the prison as a safety valve on our business,” he said. When production slows down, prisoners are laid off instead of some of the 250 workers at the company’s plant in Flippin, Arkansas.
There are downsides to using prisoner labor, though – chiefly the loss of production control. For example, the entire prison may go on lockdown, effectively ending production until the lockdown is lifted. Guards also must thoroughly search raw materials arriving at the prison and finished goods leaving the facility, which delays production and shipping.
The advantages for prisoners include the chance to learn a trade and earn higher wages. However, most PIE program jobs pay only minimum wage before deductions for housing costs, court costs, victim restitution and child support. Often the prisoner is left with few real earnings. And they learn low-end menial job skills that have long since migrated overseas or behind prison walls.
A chief criticism of PIE programs is that they unfairly compete with companies dependent solely on the non-prison labor force, which must provide fair wages, vacation time and health insurance benefits for their workers. Some companies have been put out of business by PIE programs that use cheap prison labor. [See: PLN, March 2010, p.1].
Further, there is considerable cost to the taxpayer. The Arkansas Department of Corrections had to provide Actronix with a 22,000-square-foot manufacturing facility for the company’s PIE program. That was done at public expense, yet created only 65 jobs for prisoners. Additionally, private exploitation of prison labor is contrary to sound correctional principles. “Anything that creates a market incentive to lock people up undermines the very purpose of our criminal justice system,” said Sheila Bedy, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based research foundation.
So long as private companies can profit from prison labor, there will be a market for moving factories behind prison walls. There are around 4,700 prisoners employed in over 180 PIE programs in 32 states. But for the government subsidies, there would be no private company employment of prisoners.
Sources: Forbes, Associated Press, www.actronix.com
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