By Amanda Petteruti
This might seem like an unfortunate turn of events for people in prison, cutting them off from wages and job skills needed for reentry. But the reality is that prison industries pay below minimum wage for low-skill jobs that do not currently exist in the U.S. economy, while historically generating significant funds for states, creating an additional incentive to put and keep people in prison. In 2002, state prison industries generated $3 billion in sales and $67 million in profits for states.
Prison industries are either directly managed by a jurisdiction or, more frequently, a state contract with an outside company to use the labor of the people in prison. The Federal Bureau of Prisons operates a corporation called Federal Prison Industries, which has an online catalogue of merchandise for purchase by federal agencies, which includes furniture and clothing.
Prison industry jobs, which can include sewing clothing, making soap, making car parts, and recycling computers, are no substitute for targeted, intentional job training that will prepare a person for jobs that exist in the U.S. economy. Higher education, GED programs, treatment programs, life skills education, and vocational programs, like a program once run by the local International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers to train people in prison to become electricians at San Quentin Prison, are all just as or more effective means of training people in prison for jobs outside prison.
Prison industry jobs are also not open to everyone in prison, thus any benefits are open to very few people. In 2006, 21,250 people in the federal prison system were employed by Federal Prison Industries, or 11 percent of the number of people in federal prisons in that year. That leaves 171,796 people who were not participating in a prison industry job. The vast majority of people in prisons are not receiving any training through prison industry jobs.
Considering the fact that, in the past, states and the federal government is no longer profiting from the work of people in prison, the loss of jobs in prison industries should be an additional reason to reduce the number of people in prison. In fact, year over year in 2009 and 2010, Federal Prison Industries reports net losses of $35 million and $56 million, respectively. On top of these losses, states and the federal government are still paying about $30,000 a year to keep a single person in prison.
Instead of asking for more jobs for people in prison, we should be asking for more jobs, more skills training, and more education in communities to keep people out of prison and put people back to work.