Published on Sunday, March 19, 2000 in the New York Times
As Prison Labor Grows, So Does the Debate
by David Leonhardt
 

OTAY MESA, Calif. -- Behind five barbed-wire fences, four identification checkpoints, two guard towers and one 50,000-volt electric fence sits one of the few remaining solutions to America's tightest labor market in 30 years.

Every weekday, some 100 prisoners report for work at one of three private companies here at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, a series of squat buildings hidden among the hills at the base of Otay Mountain, just five miles from the Mexican border. The men, convicted murderers and robbers among them, stitch T-shirts, recycle tires and make beer and wine vats.

Other than the workers' uniformly blue outfits and the armed guards who occasionally patrol the factory floors, the workplace looks quite normal. A radio plays the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun" and Queen's "We Will Rock You." Hunched over sewing machines or welding together stainless steel vats, the men earn about $5.75 an hour, the California minimum wage. The products end up attached to trendy clothing labels like No Fear and in upscale pubs.

With unemployment low and a record number of Americans behind bars, prison labor is coming to mean much more than painting license plates. As inmates undertake everything from telemarketing to the manufacturing of computer circuit boards and furniture, the change has caused a growing debate, playing out in state legislatures and in two bills before Congress, over the role the nation's two million prisoners should play in its economy.

Across the country, more than 80,000 inmates now hold traditional jobs, working for governments or private companies and earning 25 cents to $7 an hour. The private sector programs, which exist in 36 states and employ 3,500, have doubled in size since 1995 after years of almost no growth. And the federal program that employs 21,000 inmates, up 14 percent in the last two years, and that has $600 million in annual sales, is seeking to expand.

Both supporters and opponents agree the debate is at a critical juncture because employment in prisons could spread quickly in the coming years. On virtually every other question, however -- whether prison labor helps inmates or is cruel to them, whether it is an economic benefit or a force holding down wages -- the two sides differ vehemently.

Supporters of the employment of inmates include law enforcement officials who view the programs as a way to reform convicts and business groups who see inexpensive labor. Many prisoners want to work, the backers say, and they point to research showing that inmates who work are less likely to commit crimes when they are released.

"It's a problem for corrections officers to have prisoners without anything constructive to do," said Edwin Meese III, the former United States attorney general, who lobbies for expanded inmate labor as chairman of the Enterprise Prison Institute, a Bethesda, Md., research group financed by state grants, research centers and private companies.

In addition, supporters say, prisoners offer the ultimate in a flexible and dependable work force. "If I lay them off for a week," said Pierre Sleiman, the owner of the T-shirt company at Donovan, referring to his workers, "I don't have to worry about someone else coming and saying, 'Come work for me.' "

To opponents, inmate labor is both a potential human rights abuse and a threat to workers outside prison walls. Inmates have no bargaining power and are easily exploited, the critics say. In one California lawsuit, for example, two prisoners have sued both their employer and the prison, saying they were put in solitary confinement after complaining about working conditions.

The opponents also say the programs have stolen jobs from outside workers and hold down wages for other workers. Inmate labor, said Gordon Lafer, a political science professor at the University of Oregon, "is a decent-sized problem that is poised to explode."

Most of the companies now in the program are small.

Earlier in the 1990's, big companies like AT&T and Microsoft hired inmates, but most backed away after the arrangements were exposed. Some big companies, like the retailer Target, still use suppliers that employ prisoners.

Prison labor in the United States has its roots in the 1800's, when inmates worked for private companies without pay. After hundreds died on the job because of hazardous conditions, unions and prison reformers demanded a halt the practice.

In 1934, however, federal prison officials concerned about growing unrest in prisons lobbied to create a work program. Companies got involved again in 1979, when Congress passed a law allowing them to hire prisoners in some circumstances.

For most of the last two decades, the programs remained tiny. But the tough drug and sentencing laws of the 1980's helped increase the number of Americans behind bars by 80 percent, to two million, in a decade. The unemployment rate, meanwhile, was falling. "Now the economy is very good, and businesses are looking to the prison system for labor," said Noreen Blonien, an assistant director of the California Department of Corrections.

Officials at the federal Bureau of Prisons hope the same logic will enable them to expand their program, the nation's largest, to include private sector jobs like those at Donovan. Representative Bill McCollum, a Florida Republican, has offered a bill that would allow the bureau to do so, as long as the company hiring inmates could show it was not moving existing jobs behind bars. The jobs would also pay more than the 21 cents to $1.15 an hour that the inmates now in the program earn.

A competing bill, meanwhile, from Representative Pete Hoekstra, a Michigan Republican, could cause the federal program to scale back by forcing it to compete with private companies for the government contracts it now fills.

"What you end up with, in certain cases, is the federal government getting inferior products at higher prices," said Mr. Hoekstra, who has the support of both the United States Chamber of Commerce and the A.F.L.-C.I.O.

In recent weeks, the lawmakers' aides have discussed a combined bill that would both force state-run prison operations to compete with private enterprises and allow companies to hire federal inmates. "We're very close to a compromise," Mr. McCollum said. If they cannot reach one, the lawmakers say they will offer their bills separately.

Away from Washington, the debate over inmates working for private companies is less hypothetical.

One business employing inmates is C.M.T. Blues, the T-shirt company here in the country's southwesternmost corner, and it has been home to virtually every argument on both sides of the issue.

Five years ago, in nearby Chula Vista, Mr. Sleiman was running a business that imported clothing, and he was considering opening his own operation. He was looking to Honduras, he said, where workers earn about $1.75 an hour. "In our industry, all of the business is going offshore," Mr. Sleiman said. Then he heard about California's prison work program. Under it, Mr. Sleiman would have to pay the inmates $5.75 an hour, but he could make up some of the expense elsewhere.

For C.M.T.'s factory, Mr. Sleiman pays less than a fifth of what he would elsewhere in rent and electricity. He also receives a 25 percent discount on workers' compensation insurance and tax credits.

But he soon found out that setting up shop in a prison is no panacea. Delivery and pickup times must be scheduled precisely. Mr. Sleiman also trained many of the workers from scratch, he said. Then he had to convince them to work together.

"On paper, it looked very good," Mr. Sleiman said. In reality, he added, "it has been a tough road."

It has been even tougher for the inmates, according to a lawsuit filed last summer by two former Donovan prisoners. To work at C.M.T., inmates had to go through a 60-day "training period" for which they were not paid, according to the suit. It also says workers were given unrealistic production quotas and were told to replace "Made in Honduras" labels on some fabric with 'Made in the U.S.A." tags.

After the inmates, Charles Ervin and Shearwood Fleming, got in touch with a local television show and it broadcast their charges, they were fired, put in solitary confinement for more than 45 days and eventually transferred to another prison.

Mr. Sleiman said the length of training programs varies and that the accusations about quotas and the labels were untrue. A California Department of Corrections investigation into the label-switching charge was inconclusive, a state spokeswoman said. Prisoners understood the conditions of the training program when they applied to work at C.M.T., she added.

Whatever the problems, though, California prison officials said the private sector jobs remain far more popular among inmates than washing sheets or even building government furniture. At most state prisons where private companies operate, there are waiting lists to be hired.

"When we step through the gates and into the shop," said Allen W. Smith, 45, a T-shirt worker who is serving a 13-year sentence for robbery, "this is a company. This isn't prison." Guards still keep watch, but the atmosphere differs greatly from prison yards, the inmates said.

The private sector jobs also pay at least the minimum wage, although prisoners in most states keep only a fraction of their pay.

Compared with other jobs at Donovan, "it's great," said Frank W. Owen, 39, who was convicted of a 1982 murder and has worked for C.M.T. for four years. "I've been able to save some money."

Mr. Owen also said he hoped his record at C.M.T. would help him earn parole.

Mr. Sleiman, meanwhile, said C.M.T. was doing better now that he had learned how to operate in a prison. Over the 18 months, he added, he plans to triple his work force to 200.

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company

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