Is it an idea whose time has come (again)?
The idea that prisoners should work as part of their rehabilitation was first implemented in the US at the Auburn, New York, prison in 1823. Indeed by 1828 the federal prisons at Auburn and Sing Sing (New York) were paying for themselves, largely due to the work of the inmates.1 The initial work undertaken by inmates related either to jobs which needed to be done to operate the prisons more frugally or which involved making craft items for resale by the prison. Only in a few instances in later years did prison “work” mean doing physical labor without a particular constructive purpose, e.g. breaking rocks.
By the end of the 19th century the notion of prison labor evolved more completely from prison labor for prison purposes to prison labor for private profit. In fact, at the start of the twentieth century prison factories serving private companies were commonplace.2 Many correctional facilities padded their budgets and many correctional officers padded their wallets with deals made with private companies. At that time as much as 90% of the inmate population was employed, generating revenues to help offset the costs of incarceration and helping to occupy the time and utilize the energies of the inmates.3
Not unexpectedly, the period was full of abuses. Convicts were unpaid. Money did not go into public coffers. Competitors using non-prison labor were upset by the unfair, under- or un-paid competition. And individuals were being arrested on trumped-up charges in order to procure enough labor to meet contract obligations. By the time of the Great Depression the abuses and competition, combined with the very high rates of unemployment among the non-incarcerated, were enough to force Congress and many states to ban the open-market sale of prison-made goods and to limit even sales to governments. Prison inmates could thereafter only be involved in prison operation and “traditional” prison industries, such as growing food for the inmates and building furniture for state offices. A marked distinction was made between “prison industries”, the employment of inmates in publicly run, correctional activities that either helped produce food for the prisoners or products that could be used by and sold to state agencies, and “prison industry enterprises”, prison-based industries which are allowed to sell goods and services to the private market. The decades of abuse virtually stopped the utilization of private industry enterprises.
This could have been the last word on the subject of private enterprises utilizing prison labor. But in 1979 Congress reversed itself in hopes of rehabilitating prisoners through work while reducing the costs of incarceration. Congress sanctioned the creation and operation of prison industry enterprises but with provisos which would at- tempt to stop the abuses which had occurred decades earlier. It established a program, the Private Sector/Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PS/PIEC — known commonly today as PIE, Prison Industry Enhancement), to oversee and regulate all attempts by state or local correctional agencies to engage in activities with private firms using inmate labor.
The result has been an increased level of interest and numerous attempts to use prison labor for private enterprise. The scale of that activity, however, has been rather limited. Although some 38 jurisdictions (a mix of state and local) have been sanctioned, only 2,280 inmate employees were involved as of March 31, 1997.4 That figure has undoubtedly grown some since then. But the number is relatively small (one in 500) when compared to the over one million men and women incarcerated in US prisons (this does not include the over 440,000 persons in jails).5
Wisconsin has had an active prison employment program (as opposed to a private industry enterprise program) for decades. One component involves staffing many prison functions, such as food and janitorial service. But it also has operated farms, built products such as office furniture, and offered services such as printing and data entry to state and municipal governments. More recently (1995), the state, through its Bureau of Correctional Enterprises, began to be additionally involved with private enterprise in its prisons. For the first time in many years, the state’s inmates could produce products for commercial sale on the open market. The legislation originally limited the experiment to three enterprises. Only two have become engaged in the prisons to date (March 1998). But the program was legislatively expanded in 1997 to the point that the Wisconsin Department of Corrections now has the ability to bring as many as six companies into the Wisconsin prisons. Given the limited scale of private industry enterprises both in state and nationally, one may wonder why such an effort is even being made. Why should Wiscon- sin expend precious correctional resources on experimenting with an idea that has had such limited use in recent years? That is the basic issue explored in this report.
To better understand the rationale and to better assess the merits of utilizing prison-industry enterprises, this report will explore: the seeming appeal of prison industry enterprise, the role of work in prison operation, the role of work in reforming inmates in order to reduce the chances they will recidivate (commit other crimes and return to prison), details on the federal program (PIE) of regulating private enterprise in prisons, the experience of other states with this approach, the experience of Wisconsin to date, variations on this approach elsewhere, and an assessment of where Wisconsin should be headed with this approach and why.