Prison Officials Praise Industry Programs Despite Downsides
by David M. Reutter
As the U.S. economy remains sluggish and companies consider layoffs to cut costs, the outlook for prison industry programs is mixed, with some reporting increased revenue and others reporting net losses.
Prison industries are big business according to a 2012 report by the Louisiana Legislative Fiscal Office, which examined industry programs in 15 Southern states.
The report found the programs employed 23,838 prisoners and generated $473.8 million in sales with $1.6 million in net profit in fiscal year 2012. What states did with those proceeds varied; some reinvested profits into their industry programs while others used the funds for other purposes.
State prison industry programs, however, are dwarfed by UNICOR, the trade name for Federal Prison Industries. UNICOR employs around 13,000 federal prisoners at factories in 62 facilities, and reported gross revenue of $609.7 million in fiscal year 2013 – but a net loss of $4.2 million. UNICOR has been laying off workers and closing some of its factories over the past several years. [See: PLN, Nov. 2013, p.52].
Prison officials are quick to tout the advantages of their industry programs.
“The benefits of TCI [Texas Correctional Industries] are twofold,” said spokesman Jason Clark. “From a fiscal perspective, TCI benefits the state of Texas by generating cost savings.... From a rehabilitative perspective, TCI places offenders in realistic work environments and enables them to obtain marketable job skills.”
TCI produces over $70 million in products each year, including engraved mugs, furniture, lockers, fencing, janitorial supplies, apparel, Texas flags and awards, and other items. Most prisoners who work for TCI are not paid.
In March 2014, the California Prison Industry Authority began offering a Computer-Aided Design program for women prisoners at the Green Valley Training Center, in which they will use CAD software “to improve existing correctional industry product designs and to develop new products,” according to The Folsom Telegraph.
“This program ensures offenders have the job skills they need to stay on a positive path toward employment when they are released,” said Jeffrey A. Beard, secretary of California’s prison system and chairman of the Prison Industry Board.
Tennessee’s prison industry program, TRICOR, reported saving taxpayers $3.3 million in “supervision and programming costs” in 2012. It also transferred $194,000 into a criminal injuries compensation fund for victims that year.
The 2013 annual report for North Carolina Correction Enterprises indicated it had $90.3 million in sales that fiscal year, with a $2.5 million net loss. Among other items, the prison industry program produces highway signs, janitorial supplies, furniture, paint and eyeglasses.
Louisiana’s Prison Enterprises, which operates a garment factory and other programs, reported a $1.27 million net profit in fiscal year 2012 on gross revenue of $17.9 million. All profits go back into the program to repair equipment, cover utilities and staff salaries, and pay prisoner wages – which range up to $.20 per hour.
Many state prison industries also operate PIE (Prison Industry Enhancement) programs, which allow free-world businesses to use prisoner labor to produce goods and services sold on the open market. [See: PLN, March 2010, p.1]. The National Correctional Industries Association reported that 4,618 prisoners were employed in PIE programs nationwide as of December 31, 2013. Prisoners who work in PIE programs typically earn minimum wage, but there are deductions for victim restitution, room and board, family support and taxes. In 2013, PIE program workers earned a total of $41.45 million with $24.92 million (or around 60%) in deductions.
Most prison industries cite the rehabilitative benefits of their programs, in terms of providing prisoners with job skills and work experience.
“While it operates as a business, the real output is inmates who are trained in marketable skills so that they can return to the community as productive members of society,” UNICOR’s senior deputy assistant director, Philip J. Sibal, told a Congressional committee in June 2012.
But one of the downsides of prison industry programs is that they use low-cost prisoner labor that sometimes unfairly competes with free-world businesses.
For example, hundreds of jobs at clothing factories in Alabama, Kentucky and Tennessee, and at a helmet-manufacturing company in Pennsylvania, were lost or put at risk due to competition from UNICOR. [See: PLN, March 2014, p.52; Feb. 2013, p.42; July 2009, p.21].
American Power Source, an Alabama company, announced in September 2012 that it planned to close two plants after losing a contract to make exercise clothing for the U.S. Air Force. The contract went to UNICOR. The plants ultimately remained open, but 50 of the company’s employees, who made at least $9.25 per hour, lost their jobs to federal prisoners who will earn up to $1.15 an hour in a UNICOR program.
American Power Source employee Misti Keeton empathized with the prisoners, as she used to be incarcerated herself. Yet she has a family to feed and said she feared losing her job.
“I’m terrified,” she stated. “I’ve got two teenagers at home. I don’t know what I’m supposed to say to them if I lose this job. I don’t know what I’m supposed to feed them.”
“The government doesn’t want me to be on welfare,” Keeton continued. “They don’t want me to be a repeat offender. So why are they going to give my job to someone who is not going to come to this plant when they get out of prison?”
She raises a good point – a point that indicates the rehabilitative benefits of prison industry programs may be illusory in terms of providing prisoners with job skills they can use to obtain post-release employment.
Cathy Griffiths, operations manager at American Power Source, noted that the garment industry mostly employs women.
“[T]his has always been a working mother’s job – we work 7 to 3 and the wages, though not always the best, they’re good, decent wages,” she said. “Of the company’s 261 employees, fewer than 10 are men. Sewing is not something men do for a living in the United States.”
However, as of January 2014, almost all of UNICOR’s 22 clothing and textile factories were located in facilities that house male prisoners – which raises questions as to whether the skills they are learning will actually help them obtain jobs after they’re released, or if they are primarily being used as low-paid labor to generate revenue for prison industry programs.
Sources: Associated Press, www.theadvocate.com, www.nationalcia.org, www.military.com, The Dothan Eagle, www.folsomtelegraph.com
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