Productive Jails Benefit Many

By Miller, Rod; Trevathan, Joseph | Corrections Today, April 2003 | Go to article overview

Productive Jails Benefit Many

Miller, Rod, Trevathan, Joseph, Corrections Today

These are tough times for local governments and taxpayers, but one jail program offers proven relief for all the parties who hold a "stake" in the nation's jails. Inmate work and industry activities benefit the public, jail operators and inmates--often without cost to taxpayers and sometimes providing substantial cost relief. In 2001, Hampden County, Mass., posted revenues of $503,000 against costs that were significantly less.

According to the National Institute of Justice, inmate labor is used in every jail and jail inmates provide as many hours of labor as jail staff. It is difficult to imagine operating jails without using inmate labor. But some jurisdictions have taken this longstanding practice and elevated it to new heights of productivity and effectiveness. Their experience suggests that involving the full range of stakeholders is key for success.

Many Have an Interest in Jails

A 1998 study by the American Bar Association titled Discussion Draft: Inmate Labor in America's Correctional Facilities identified a surprising number of entities that have an interest in inmate labor. These include:

* Corrections -- Administrators, supervisors, officers, state correctional industries, program providers, inmates, inmate advocates and inmate families;

* Business -- Competitors, customers and vendors/suppliers;

* Labor -- Private and public labor organizations;

* Government -- Legislative and judicial branches, finance and purchasing, law enforcement, sheriffs, state legislators and state jail inspectors;

* Nonprofit -- Sheltered workshops and other nonprofit organizations; and

* Other -- Victims, economic development, education, taxpayer advocates, employment/job services, legal community, political, religious community and the media.

Involving these stakeholders is one of the strategies promoted by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. Table 1 compares the breadth of involvement two pioneering counties have successfully mobilized to guide their inmate work and industry programs.

Revenue Is a Must

National research confirms that many public and private stakeholders receive the products and services generated by inmate labor, as shown in Table 2. While many benefit from inmate labor, few actually pay for it because most jails do not charge for inmate work activities and products. This generates tremendous good will, but it often hinders the longevity and expansion of work and industry programs. When jails do not receive any compensation for their inmate labor activities, they must pay the associated costs from their own budget. And when budgets are tight, as in the current economy, it can be difficult to secure appropriations to expand the use of inmate labor. Failing to seek compensation, even modest amounts, can be a strategic error.

Many jails that now charge customers for services and products that were previously free have found that the demand for their services has not diminished. In most cases, these jails have enjoyed overall growth in work and industry programs, and their customers still believe that they receive excellent value for their investment.

Establishing and monitoring a fee structure is a perfect task to assign to an advisory committee, as Montgomery County, Md., recently discovered. The committee provides a forum to weigh the implications of pricing decisions and to strike a balance for all parties.

York Street Industries

Sixteen years ago, Hampden County's jail industry program began its operations. Named for the location of the old jail, York Street Industries has demonstrated many principles and strategies that have proved effective. One of these is that from its inception, the program has charged its customers. During fiscal year 2001, the program posted revenues of more than $500,000 derived from nearly 26,000 hours of labor. Inmates also earned sentence reductions for their work, offering the county additional savings by reducing the jail population. …

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