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Arkansas Prisons: Opening their Gates for Business

Two businesses are thriving thanks to its use of prisoner slave labor. On the bright side, the program is helping some prisoners financially.

            Since 2007, the Private Industry Enhancement (PIE) program has allowed two manufacturers, Glove Corp (GC) and electronics manufacturer Actronix Inc. of Flippin (AI), to thrive and expand their businesses in Arkansas prisons by employing prisoners. While both businesses pay market wages, they admit prison labor was the secret to their success.

            From 1999 to 2008, production jobs in Arkansas fell from 187,000 to 137,000 (nearly 27%) and sewing jobs, from 5,130 to 1,600 (nearly 69%), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For AI, which makes ports such as wire harnesses for MRI machines, and GC, which makes items such as firefighter and military components, the slave labor of prisoners has allowed both companies to survive.

            AI’s Flippin plant, which makes parts assembled elsewhere by prisoners, employs more than 250 non-prisoners. The plant says at full strength but the prisoners are laid off in slow times. According to Mark Wood, Actronix senior vice president, prison is a “safety valve.”

            Arkansas prisons are willing to invest more prisons and prisoners into business. “Anybody is welcome to call us at any time,” said Dina Tyler, the Correctional Department spokeswoman. Despite this hunger for businesses and the benefits these businesses gain at the expense of prisoner labor, the prisoners benefit as well.

            One of the 70 female prisoners working for AI paid off her child support and victim restitution. She also had $15,000 in the bank when she was released. Calvin Harmon, a prisoner working for GC, said, “Savings is the most important part… It keeps the burden off your family.”

            Prisoners gain skills, too. Tony Moore, general manager of GC, said that his workers sometimes sew gloves blindly because the bulky material blocks the needle from view. They also have to sew as precisely as 1/16 of an inch.

            GC has certainly taken advantage of its captive employees. In October 2008, after two years of success at its Pine Bluff Unit with 55 male prisoners, GC moved to a larger space at the Grimes Unit in Newport. There, it added a leather cutting operation, more production lines, and 15 prisoners.

Source: Associated Press

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