Thursday, September 14, 2006

Big Labor vs. public safety and the global economy: Companies find cheap employees in prison

Should private companies get to use cut-rate prison labor? It's good for rehabilitation, repays victims, and lets prisoners earn a nest egg for when they get out. But is it unfair to free-world workers? A Houston Chronicle story this morning gives voice to complaints about the small but growing Texas program ("Labor leaders fume over Texas prison plan," Sept. 14):

The [Prison Industry Enhancement] certification program, enacted by Congress in 1979, allows states to give prisoners private sector work experience and a few employers some nice breaks. Today, 5,800 inmates participate in about 40 jurisdictions around the country. Though the program touches a fraction of the overall prison population, the numbers have grown through the years, said Sahra Nadiir, project coordinator for the National Correctional Industries Association.

Offenders like it because they make money, although they keep only about 20 percent of it. The states pocket as much as 80 percent, for room and board. Texas collects between 30 percent and 60 percent, depending on how much gets divvied up among the courts, crime victims and offenders' dependents, spouses or disabled parents.

The main example in the Chronicle article focused on a private prison in Lockhart. Two other Texas prisons allow private businesses to operate on the premises. We're talking about 500 jobs total - a drop in the bucket in the scheme of Texas' economy, but even that earned howls of complaint from the AFL-CIO. Here's a United Auto Workers rep: "We're exporting jobs from all over the country and now we're going to take the jobs that are left here and turn them over to prison labor at half, or less, the wages you'd expect to pay someone on the open market."

To me, labor's complaints on this sound a lot like those of people whining that immgrants drive down wages. In my mind, when I read that, I can't help hearing the characters from South Park shouting "They took our jobs!"

First, let's be clear: unemployment in the United States remains remarkably low, even if rising gas and other prices are cutting into consumers' bottom line. It's true that because of globalization, business models that could only be profitable using low-waged workers are moving to other countries. But job creation in America has also continued, based in part on new economic opportunities created by globalization.

Both big labor and the anti-immigration lobby are raging against an economic storm that's bigger than their own narrow interests. Blaming prisoners or immigrants or even workers from other countries for supposedly stagnant wages (American wages are still among the highest in the world) ignores economic reality. With Mexican and Asian labor so cheap, why not keep those jobs here and use them in positive ways that contribute to offender rehabilitation?

"This is not meant to displace workers in the free world, it is meant to reduce recidivism," said a spokeswoman for the private prison in Lockhart.

In a recent episode of the TV series 30 Days, Morgan Spurlock supposedly spent 30 days in jail including three days in solitary confinement, to find out what it was like (he actually left after 24 because, he said, he was "satisfied" with the footage - must be nice!). Mostly, he learned, it was like sitting around doing nothing for long, long, periods of time. Just sitting, standing, pacing, for hours, then back to the cell at night before doing it again the next day. No rehabilitation or education programs, and definitely no work. What a waste.

Why not give these prisoners something to do that will instill discipline in their daily routine, plus build a nest egg for when they get out, let them make child support payments, or even help compensate victims?

IMO, prisoners probably don't take jobs from Americans; they're taking jobs from Mexicans, Indians and Chinese - and so what? Welcome to the 21st century economy, where communications and transportation revolutions have finally mooted many of the old barriers to internationalized production. You may not like it, but that's the world we live in. We ought to make the best of it.

5 comments:

Suzanne Wills said...

Outsourcing jobs to prisons where federal wage and safety standards do not apply gives corporations an interest in keeping a large number of capable, productive people behind bars. The corporations may not lobby for more criminal laws for minor offenses, but they are surely disinclined to oppose such laws when they provide a cheap, captive labor force.

Jason said...

If I remember my history prison labor was utilized in the 40s/50s around then. If I also remember correctly, the result was businesses run by, and employing free people were going out of business and raising the unemployment rate. How do you tell a family man who works hard for a living that his job has been given to a convict?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@jason: "How do you tell a family man who works hard for a living that his job has been given to a convict?"

No one's giving his job away. In most cases these are new jobs that otherwise, at those wage levels, would go to Asia, Latin America, etc.

Besides, with unemployment at a low 4.7%, that poor hard-working family man almost certainly already has a job, or can find one - that's very near what economists call "full employment."

@suzanne: To me that's outweighed by the good it does for the individual prisoner as opposed to sitting around all day. It's not a chain gang, they don't have to work; prisoners choose to. Plus, as a government institution, it's easier to legislate workplace standards in prison than in, say, Tyler Pipe or some of the truly dangerous workplaces out in the free world. Best,

800 pound gorilla said...

The problem is that of supply and demand. If you have a very large labor pool you can pay minimum wage for agricultural workers. If the pool is shrunk by eliminating prison workers, welfare reform workers and illegal immigrants you have to pay higher wages for the same labor. This produces more disposable income for those working and a generally higher standard of living.

What welfare reform does is increase the labor supply while at the same time increasing the demand for child care thus driving down wages and driving up child care costs for the working poor. This is compounded by the fact that the child care credit has not been adjusted for inflation like the tax credits for those politically connected have.

Another problem is that money is diverted from education and other [more] useful productive government spending. The lack of work safety and accountability of those who profit from prison labor further compound the problem.

I'm a libertarian and I really don't mind free markets. But our system has taxpayer funded protectionism for big corporations and free markets for labor and consumers. We have a court system that protects those with resources - but denies access to those with far less resources. The best justice that money can buy does not work for those with little money.

Rusty said...

800 pound gorilla

WELL SAID!!! it drives me crazy when I hear people say, unemployment is down and everybody is working! YOU BET , after they lost all their savings, and have exhausted their unemployment benefit, and are willing to work for LESS THAN HALF of what they were making! As well as take any job available, or two jobs to feed their families!

I support inmates working and bettering themselves. So let them manufacture the things needed for the prison system, AND JAILS, let them grow their own food and raise their own beef, pork, give them government contracts to build what the state and government needs. FAT CHANCE, those monopolies that control that work have no problem giving up our everyday jobs. But hell would freeze over before they let THEIR JOBS GO!

Better yet those that support this , should be willing to sacrifice THEIR jobs to help out???

Why not stop TXU AND MANY OTHER BIG BUSINEES from farming out their call services ALL OVER THE WORLD, and let the inmates do it??? At least we would get an American on the phone!

Welcome to the new America, you can have as much justice and freedoms AS YOU CAN AFFORD! And we have a prison system that makes the prisoners pay for it, thereby we have no problem locking anybody and everybody up! Oh yea we are expanding our prison manufacturing plants , SO WE WILL NEED SOME MORE CHEAP LABOR “ AND YOUR NEXT””! I call BS, if the people don’t want to pay for locking up so many Americans, THEN COULD IT BE WE ARE LOCKING UP TO MANY????