The Devil Is in the Details: National Symposium on the Economics of Inmate Labor Force Participation

Article excerpt

It has been a relatively quiet legislative session and the commissioner breathes a sigh of relief. The bruising budget battles are over. No escapes, no riots, no excessive use-of-force allegations. For once, corrections is out of the limelight. Then, the phone rings. The head of the Corrections Committee wants answers "right now!" A major employer in her district is going out of business and says unfair competition from inmate labor has driven him to bankruptcy. The commissioner gets that familiar sinking feeling, knowing the information needed to defend the department just isn't available.

Economic impacts play a huge role in the often vociferous debate on inmate labor. Does anyone really know what those impacts are? That is the intriguing question that brought together a unique group for the first-ever Symposium on the Economics of Inmate Labor Force Participation, May 21, 1999, in Washington, D.C. The symposium was developed by Community Resource Services Inc. (CRS), with funding from the Center on Crime, Communities and Culture of the Open Society Institute. The George Washington University Department of Economics played host to an expert group of economists, guest panelists and about 150 audience members ranging from corrections professionals to inmate family members.

Symposium Overview

Nationally known economics journalist Amy Kaslow of National Public Radio's Marketplace, and former national economics correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, served as moderator for the day's proceedings. After a general statistical overview of the U.S. labor market, participants spent a full day taking in presentations of formal academic papers, followed by lively panel question-and-answer sessions that brought the academics down from their ivory towers, and even had time to do some work in small group exercises.

For this day, criminal justice and current correctional industry practices took a backseat. The conference organizers chose instead a rigorous examination of basic economic issues and arguments on inmate labor. The organizers also wanted to examine some of the broader policy and social implications of inmate labor. The symposium hoped to involve a wide array of stakeholders - beyond the corrections, industry and labor stakeholders who have traditionally debated this issue - to include interests in victim compensation, taxation, poverty, economic development, family and child support, substance abuse, health, abuse and violence prevention, and other interests that are affected by both inmate work or idleness.

Staff also hoped for, and got, greater involvement of federal government agencies not usually associated with correctional issues. Representatives from the departments of labor, the treasury, commerce, housing and urban development, education, health and human services and justice, as well as the president's Council of Economic Advisors and the Office of National Drug Control Policy attended the meeting.

Inmate Labor Policies

A driving force in getting the symposium off the drawing board, Thomas Petersik, Ph.D, economist and volunteer with CURE (Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants), opened the proceedings by describing the current state of inmate labor policies as a lose-lose situation for everyone - Taxpayers, inmates, criminal justice systems and the general public. He acknowledged the complexities of inmate labor, but urged the attendees to purposely focus on economic issues to test out the premise that the current economic analysis of inmate employment is incorrect. By bringing hard economic analysis into the debate for the first time, Petersik also wanted to provide opinion leaders, the public and policy-makers with information that could support future policy changes.

Petersik urged attendees to consider the issue of inmate employment in a much broader social and economic context. It does not just affect 1.8 million disconnected inmates, but in fact, nearly 5 million Americans. …