Enlisting Prison Labor to Close Budget Gaps
Inmates at the California Institute for Men at Chino in training to perform underwater welding work.
By ROBBIE BROWN and KIM SEVERSON
Published: February 24, 2011
JAY, Fla. — Before he went to jail, Danny Ivey had barely seen a backyard garden.
A California program helps inmates learn welding skills so they can repair leaky public water tanks.
Berrydale Forestry Camp farm squad prisoners harvested collard greens at the University of Florida West Florida Research and Education Facility in Jay, Fla.
In Florida, prisoners grow their own vegetables through a partnership with an agricultural center.
A training session for inmates at the Leonard Greenstone Marine Technology Training Center in Chino, Calif.
But here he was, two years left on his sentence for grand theft, bent over in a field, snapping wide, green collard leaves from their stems. For the rest of the week, Mr. Ivey and his fellow inmates would be eating the greens he picked, and the State of Florida would be saving most of the $2.29 a day it allots for their meals.
Prison labor — making license plates, picking up litter — is nothing new, and nearly all states have such programs. But these days, officials are expanding the practice to combat cuts in federal financing and dwindling tax revenue, using prisoners to paint vehicles, clean courthouses, sweep campsites and perform many other services done before the recession by private contractors or government employees.
In New Jersey, inmates on roadkill patrol clean deer carcasses from highways. Georgia inmates tend municipal graveyards. In Ohio, they paint their own cells. In California, prison officials hope to expand existing programs, including one in which wet-suit-clad inmates repair leaky public water tanks. There are no figures on how many prisoners have been enrolled in new or expanded programs nationwide, but experts in criminal justice have taken note of the increase.
“There’s special urgency in prisons these days,” said Martin F. Horn, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction. “As state budgets get constricted, the public is looking for ways to offset the cost of imprisonment.”
Although inmate labor is helping budgets in many corners of state government, the savings are the largest in corrections departments themselves, which have cut billions of dollars in recent years and are under constant pressure to reduce the roughly $29,000 a year that it costs to incarcerate the average inmate in the United States.
Senator John Ensign, Republican of Nevada, introduced a bill last month to require all low-security prisoners to work 50 hours a week. Creating a national prison labor force has been a goal since he went to Congress in 1995, but it makes even more sense in this economy, he said.
“Think about how much it costs to incarcerate someone,” Mr. Ensign said. “Do we want them just sitting in prison, lifting weights, becoming violent and thinking about the next crime? Or do we want them having a little purpose in life and learning a skill?”
Financial experts agree.
“These are nickel-and-dime attempts to cut budgets, but they add up,” said Alan Essig, an expert on state budgets at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. “You save a dollar here, a dollar there, and you keep your government’s functions.”
Technology has made it easier to coordinate. In Hunterdon County, N.J., nonprofit organizations and government agencies can view prisoners’ work schedules online and reserve them for a specific task on a free day. (Coming tasks include cleaning up after a Fire Department fish fry and maintaining a public park.)
“Using inmate labor has created unusual alliances: liberal humanitarian groups that advocate more education and exercise in prisons find themselves supporting proposals from conservative budget hawks to get inmates jobs, often outdoors, where they can learn new skills. Having a job in prison has been linked in studies to decreased violence, improved morale and lowered recidivism — but most effectively, experts say, when the task is purposeful.
“The days of just breaking rocks with sledgehammers” are over, said Michael P. Jacobson, director of the Vera Institute of Justice, a research group in New York. “At the grossest financial level, it’s just savings. You can cut the government worker, save the salary and still maintain the service, and you’re providing a skill for when they leave.”
There are, of course, concerns about public safety and competition with government or private workers. Professor Horn estimates that only 20 percent of inmates present a low enough security threat to work in public. And in some places, even financially struggling governments are not willing to take the risk of employing prisoners.
In Ocala, Fla., after a long debate, the City Council last summer decided to have a private company mow grass, even though using inmates would have saved $1.1 million. “Our area has been really hard hit by unemployment,” said Suzy Heinbockel, a Council member. “There was a belief that the private company would bring local jobs, rather than giving those jobs to prisoners.”
In other areas that have used prison labor to reduce costs, there have been embarrassing results. In Ohio, there was public outcry last year after state investigations found inmates drinking on the job at the governor’s mansion and smuggling tobacco back into jail. And in Maryland, a proposal to have prisoners pick blue crabs for a private company was dropped amid concern about food safety.
But the budget savings are worth it, many state officials say. In Florida, where the budget was cut by $4.6 billion this year, analysts say inmate farming could save $2.4 million a year. That is relatively small potatoes, but enough for the new governor, Rick Scott, to call for an expansion of prison farming. The state already uses 550 inmates to grow 4.8 million pounds of produce a year, and the governor has pledged $2.5 million to have more inmates grow their own food.
“It’s a win-win,” said Jeff Mullahey, the director of an agricultural center at the University of Florida whose staff was downsized in 2007 and replaced, in part, by prisoners. “It’s obvious to me why governments should be doing this.”
Inmates arrive at the center from the Century Correctional Institute every weekday, rain or shine, to grow tomatoes, peppers, squash, broccoli and oranges. The partnership with the prison began two years ago, after the university’s agriculture program sustained deep budget cuts.
Professors provide farming expertise, and inmates supply the labor and learn marketable skills as fieldworkers. The result has been so successful, providing $192,000 worth of food a year to the prison and saving $75,000 a year for the university, that wardens from around the state have visited to learn about replicating it with their inmates.
No inmates have escaped, and sometimes, Mr. Mullahey said, their criminal backgrounds are assets. Inmates with drug offenses already know how to grow plants, and when a university employee lost the key to a file cabinet, a prisoner with lock-picking experience helped him break in.
The prisoners say farming has made them feel better about themselves. “The department of corrections is going to find you a job so you might as well do something you want to do and learn something,” said Randall Riley, 37, who is doing a four-year sentence for habitual driving offenses.
And the savings are not lost on the prisoners either. “I’m on this side of the fence,” Mr. Ivey said. “But my family’s on that other side, and they’re paying taxes.”
A version of this article appeared in print on February 25, 2011, on page A16 of the New York edition.
*And a response from Bob Gangi of the Correctional Association:*
Your article on inmate labor (Feb. 25th) fails even to
touch on the serious relevant concern that using prison workers to
defray government costs represents a form of modern day indentured
servitude. Inmates are paid a pittance to perform these tasks — $.16 to
$.45 per hour in NY for example – and often have no choice but to accept
these “jobs” at the risk of being punished by prison officials. Also,
many of the activities described in the article such as scuba diving and
farming do little to nothing to prepare incarcerated people for the
realities of the employment market in the inner city communities where
most prisoners come from and where they will return upon release.
Achieving government savings is a worthy goal especially in a time of
fiscal austerity, as is providing inmates with meaningful job
preparation, but not at the expense of violating the fundamental human
rights of persons who have no ability to object to practices that
exploit them. ..Bob Gangi of the Correctional Association
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