Friday, February 25, 2011

Prison Labor, State Budgets and Unemployment

Prison Inmates Help States Fill Budget Gaps:

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.
Here in Athens we "save" money every year by using convicts to decorate downtown at the Christmas season.

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.”

Exactly, at the expense of state workers and other law abiding citizens who would lose their jobs.

Here's a novel suggestion for the "budget experts": would you consider letting inmates guard one another, so then we could just fire correctional officers, many of whom are unionized and therefore a "drain" in many states? Think of how much money you'd save if you let the inmates run the asylum.

The logic of the argument by these "financial experts" seems tortured, at best.

“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.”
For what? If the point is to replace paid positions with unpaid inmate labor, where is this indentured servant supposed to find a job when he is released from prison?

Interestingly, I find myself on the side of those who worry about this form of inmate exploitation taking jobs away from law abiding citizens.
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.
I think there is also the issue of public safety to consider, though most of the inmates on work release are low security inmates.

But still, taking jobs away from law abiding citizens and giving them to the "predator class" seems to suddenly be en vogue.
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.”

Probably not so obvious to the state worker or menial laborer who loses his job because of it.

One wonders if this isn't part of the broader assault on public workers, unions, teachers and other "21st Century Welfare Queens," as the governor of New Jersey, Ralph Kramden, puts it, and which we are seeing a backlash to in Wisconsin and other states.

Regardless, we could be setting ourselves up for one of the more fascinating conundrums of incarceration in the 21st century:

I needed a job, so I committed a crime.

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