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Louisiana Prison Industry Program Puts Profits Before Prisoners

by Kevin Bliss

The Louisiana Department of Corrections’ (LDOC) prison industry program, Prison Enterprises (PE), was audited in May 2019. The resulting report found that the program still had some of the same issues with sustainability and inadequate training opportunities for prisoners as it did 20 years ago in its last audit.

PE manufactures products for sale to state agencies and nonprofit organizations within Louisiana, and produces agricultural commodities that can be sold on the open market.

The prison industry program’s catalog advertises office furniture, institutional clothing, silk screening, institutional bedding, printing, metal fabrication and janitorial products. PE also grows corn, cotton and soybeans, and raises cattle and heifers. It provides job training opportunities through the use of prison labor to operate its various industries. All proceeds go to the LDOC.

The audit report said the program was successfully assisting in reducing the cost of incarceration. Yet PE showed a net loss for 11 of the past 23 years. Several industries within the program were so unprofitable that they were shut down, such as the quail raising farm, which lost $137,200 between 2016 and 2018, and the horse training business, which lost $189,780 in 2016.

Many of PE’s industries reported a profit for the past year. The garment factory generated $577,990 in revenue, while license plate manufacturing made $346,461 and the heifer business made $224,649. Some reported a net loss. The cattle industry lost $1.1 million and silk screening lost $93,445. Overall for 2018, PE reported revenues of $27.9 million and expenses of $28.1 million, with a net loss of $235,087. The prison industry program had claimed a $1.9 million profit in 2017 and a loss of $288,326 in 2016.

“We’re absolutely sustainable,” said PE director Michael Moore. “We have some assets to cover down years and have gotten through so far.”

He noted that annual net income does not truly reflect the success of the program. Raw materials purchased at the end of one year may be for a large production order sometime during the next year, for example. Plus the overall cost savings by the LDOC have to be taken into account. Not only does the state prison system purchase goods from PE at discount prices, but the program also provides prisoner supervision, saving the LDOC in staff salaries.

Additionally, PE’s labor expenses are extremely low. The program employs about 760 prisoners statewide at anywhere from $0.02 to $0.20 an hour. Moore said the cheap labor alone does not guarantee a profit, though. PE has many restrictions that hinder its production, plus it has to pay staff salaries.

Wanda Bertram, spokesperson for the Prison Policy Initiative, said most states struggle with generating profit through prison industry programs. She added that such programs are not the best for job training – about 32 percent of PE’s industry jobs are in fields that do not have much growth expected in the labor market.

PE wants to add welder and fitter apprenticeship programs to its industries, job skills that are in higher demand, but refuses to discontinue its more lucrative programs, such as the garment factory, even though those skills are not as useful outside of prison.

“Too often, corrections industries are portrayed as incredible job training programs that also somehow make money for the state,” Bertram said. “But that’s not how training people works. Real training costs money.” 

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Sources: theadvocate.com, prisonenterprises.org