Prisoners and Profit

In North Carolina, prison inmates process meat for private companies. In Minnesota they make fishing lures. And in Montana they help do the ranching. Convicted criminals in 24 states across the country work for private business from behind bars. So why shouldn’t Massachusetts prisoners do the same?

Legislators have been pondering that policy question, and some say it’s time for a resolution. Senate Majority Leader Thomas C. Norton, D-Fall River, has proposed a bill that would allow state prison inmates to expand their repertoire by eliminating the prohibition against contracting with private companies. The program would provide a brand new — and comparatively cheap — labor force for businesses struggling to compete against cut-rate workers overseas.

Complaints by unions and inmate advocacy groups have killed past attempts to change the law. But Norton crafted the bill with the opposition in mind. Only private companies not in competition with Massachusetts manufacturers would be able to hire incarcerated workers under his plan. One such business, a fiber-optic cable maker, has already expressed interest.

The Department of Correction has hired inmates to staff its own manufacturing program, called Massachusetts Correctional Industries, for more than 50 years. About 600 state prisoners currently choose to work for MassCor. They make a catalog full of products, from draperies, flags, brooms, and pillows to the clocks on the walls of the State House. And yes, prisoners produce all of the state’s license plates. They also provide services, such as painting, moving, and crafting custom-made wooden furniture.

State agencies are the most frequent customers, though schools, towns, hospitals, businesses, and individuals also place orders. They apparently don’t mind MassCor’s self-deprecating humor about the nature of its workforce. The MassCor slogan? “We’re here for you….ALWAYS!” And every item comes with a “LOCKDOWN” guarantee: If a customer is not “100 percent satisfied,” MassCor will repair or replace it for free. The convicts keep all the money they earn — 50 cents, 75 cents or $1 an hour, depending on the work assignment and experience. Any MassCor revenues left at the end of the year get reinvested into the program.

Prisoners would make more money working for private firms.

Inmates would fare better working for private companies, says Andrew Parker, a spokesman for Norton. Prisoners would work at close to the minimum wage, now $5.25 an hour, and could pocket about 40 percent of their earnings, or around $2.10. That means a typical worker earning about $10,800 a year would be able to keep about $4,400. Half of that could be used during incarceration, and half would go into a savings account that would be available after release.

The state also stands to gain from offering prisoners for hire. The program would generate more than $16 million a year, a sizeable chunk of which would benefit the state, Parker says. First, each prisoner would hand over $2,470 a year to help pay the cost of incarceration, for a total of $3.7 million. A typical inmate also would pay about $1,850 toward restitution, $1,235 for family and child support, and $864 in state and federal taxes — fees the state may otherwise have to chase.

But Norton says the expansion of prison industries would be much more than a money-maker. The main goal is to help inmates develop marketable work skills, so they can find jobs upon release, and thus reduce recidivism. Norton, once an industrial instructor who taught “life skills” to prisoners, wants to give inmates the “self-confidence to make it on the outside,” Parker says. “When they are released, they’ll know they’ve had experience in the private sector.”

Contracts with private companies would create an estimated 1,500 jobs for state prisoners. Sex offenders and first-degree murderers would not be eligible. “It would be counter-productive to give assignments that build skills to somebody without freedom in his horizon,” Parker says. (Acting Gov. Paul Cellucci proposed a similar program for county prison inmates in his fiscal year 1999 budget recommendation.)

But some criticism lingers. Carolyn Boyes-Watson, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Suffolk University, supports the program’s goals, but says she would prefer the state garnish less than 60 percent of each inmate’s pay. Prisoners in other states with private contracts keep more. In fact, the average amount garnisheed is only 46 percent, she said.

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“We want to create a balanced distribution of those wages so inmates can save their money and come out of prison and not go into homeless shelters,” said Boyes-Watson, who studied the proposal as part of a special legislative panel last fall. “It also promotes the fundamental work ethic, that if you work and save you can support yourself.”

Others oppose the plan in its entirety. The American Friends Service Committee says it sounds too much like indentured servitude. “It’s bondage,” said Jamie Suarez-Potts, director of the Quaker group’s New England Criminal Justice Program. “You have people being asked to work an eight-hour work day, not protected by any regulation, who can’t determine how their salaries are dispersed.” Another concern among critics is that the labor of prisoners would be used for private profit, which is not the case with the current prison work being done for the state.

Still, the proposal has the support of the chairmen of the Legislature’s Public Safety Committee — Sen. James Jajuga, D-Methuen, and Rep. Paul Casey, D-Winchester — though they may come out with their own version of the bill. And that may be enough to launch a brand new line of products with a “LOCKDOWN” guarantee.