Correctional Industries: Making Inmate Work Productive

Article excerpt

Various work activities have been designed and implemented to further the goals of habilitating inmates and reducing inmate idleness. Few programs, however, are as scrutinized and can have such a dramatic effect on an institution as correctional industries.

The Auburn system of correctional philosophy that emerged in the 1800s set the stage for work programs and the use of inmate labor as we know it today. As described by Barnes and Teeters in New Horizons in Criminology, one of the earliest systems of prison work programs adopted was the contract system. Under this system, offenders were released to private manufacturers who supplied materials and machinery; prison management provided space and supervision. This system was criticized by the private sector, labor unions and other groups that argued that the use of prison labor constituted unfair competition.

In response to the critics, the federal government enacted the Hawes-Cooper Act in 1929, which determined that prison-made goods were subject to individual state laws. In 1935, the U.S. Congress enacted the Sumners-Ashurst Act, which prohibited the transportation in interstate commerce or from any foreign country into the United States any goods, wares or merchandise manufactured by prison labor. Both acts closed the private-sector markets to goods made by inmates.

Correctional Industries Today

Over the past several decades, many studies have focused on the role of correctional industries. During a four-day, University of Iowa conference in 1970, a panel of industries directors discussed the role of industries in a comprehensive correctional program. The directors voiced their support for goals identified by researchers Jude P. West and John Stratton as necessary to improve the effectiveness of industries. The goals eventually adopted by the participants were:

* to develop in each inmate in industry a set of attitudes favorable towards work and the work situation;

* to develop in each inmate employed in industries the minimum qualifications necessary to hold a job;

* to develop in each inmate employed in industries attitudes favorable to a law-abiding life;

* to secure job placement for inmates about to be released; and

* to manufacture quality products using modern equipment, with maximum training at a reasonable monetary return, thus providing development capital.

Since the 1970s, these goals have remained relatively unchanged. Cited by most correctional administrators as one of the most important programs in offender management today, correctional industry managers must address the complex and, oftentimes, divergent goals of maintaining institutional security while focusing on costs, production and customer satisfaction. Mindful that performance also is measured by the ability to at least break even financially, losses are unacceptable (as in most business operations) and usually have a major impact on operations because more than 80 percent of industrial programs are either administratively or legislatively mandated to be self-supporting.

In Prison Life in America, Anna Kosof describes prison industries as a place "where prisoners make a product that they sell to the state, like license plates." In fact, license plates are still manufactured in at least 34 states, according to a survey conducted by the American Correctional Association. Throughout the decades, license plates have been perceived as the primary product of inmate work. Yet, diverse and expanding product lines, now and in the future, are essential to maintaining profitability and to ensuring a measure of employability for the inmate population. One measure of correctional industry's progress to date is the appearance of state-of-the-art technologies in the prison work environment.

Product- and service-related projects - such as asbestos abatement, waste recycling, computer-aided design, telemarketing, data processing, microelectronics and reservation services - have been added to a wide range of manufactured goods that include office furniture, metal products and textiles. …