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."
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.
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.