Let's Get Prisoners Off Welfare

Commentary by Pete du Pont

Welfare reform is working. Caseloads are down 79 percent in Wyoming and about 30 percent across the nation. Resignation and despair no longer rule the welfare roost. Sound policy and a strong economy have made serious headway against an "intractable" problem.

Yet in our prisons and jails, we've made almost no progress in getting criminals off welfare and into productive jobs. On any given day, we have 1.8 million unhappy souls in lockups across the country. Taxpayers pick up the tab because fewer than 100,000 inmates work in a paying, productive job inside or outside prison walls.

Where does that leave their children? Prison and jail inmates have some two million dependent children. These kids receive almost no support from their incarcerated, unemployed parents. Many of these inner-city kids are on welfare.

Our current policy is the height of folly. Not only are we losing GDP by refusing to employ prisoners productively in an era of low unemployment and widespread labor shortages, but poverty is aggravated. As Citizens United for Reform of Errants (CURE), the inmate lobby, says, prisons are at the confluence of both crime and poverty.

To ban any part of the population from employment opportunities creates a string of economic losers: taxpayers, consumers, business owners, wage earners, and the overall economy. And the losses weigh most heavily on the inner city. Estimates of how much output inmates could contribute to GDP range from $20 billion to $175 billion per year, but whether small or large, change would impact the poorest parts of the economy the most. Not only could prisoners contribute to their own support, but they could pay victim restitution (often to inner-city residents) of nearly $2 billion a year, as well as add billions in general taxes and family support.

So what's stopping us? A new study of inmate labor from the American Bar Association's subcommittee on correctional industries shows that the unemployment problem in prisons is getting worse rather than better. The nation's inmate population is growing so rapidly that the share of state and federal prisoners with jobs has shrunk from 7.6 percent to 6.5 percent since 1990.

Just as with welfare reform, we've got to rethink our old ways and change. Some citizens will object, "They don't deserve to work," or, "It's unfair to allow prisoners to produce goods in competition with legitimate businesses." That's the same old protectionist mentality that has made it virtually a crime for legitimate businesses to employ prisoners. A series of federal and state restrictions from the Great Depression hamper hiring convicts today. As Andrew Peyton Thomas, an Arizona attorney, writes, "Prison labor, once viewed as indispensable for restoring a healthy relationship between the criminal and society, was made literally a federal offense."

Our aim should be to propel offenders into, rather than away from, successful participation in the labor force. Those incarcerated should be mainstreamed into normal civilian work to the maximum extent consistent with safety and security. We should aggressively reverse the policies and inertia discouraging inmate employment.

And the good news is that market-based solutions are readily available. Old-style prison industry is based on monopoly sales to other government bureaus-license plates, highway signs and office furniture. But that's a tired, old socialist model. Government only buys so many license plates. The private sector clearly must provide the bulk of prison jobs and produce for the open market. That's consistent with the general economy and matches successful change elsewhere.

Let's repeal the laws that protect monopolies for prison production and open up the marketplace for both prison labor and products. Make wardens marketers of prison labor rather than noncompetitive producers of shoddy prison-made goods. Allow private enterprise to compete for prison labor, build industrial parks next to prisons and pay wages in accord with anticipated productivity, just like in the private marketplace. That's fair competition.

Study after study finds that employment for ex-felons is the strongest antidote to reengaging in criminal activity. Working not only improves behavior behind bars but lowers the probability of arrest on all sorts of charges upon release. And 97 percent of prisoners are released sooner or later. Fred Braun, a Kansas businessman who has employed prisoners for 20 years, jokingly says, "If we can turn more ex-convicts into taxpayers, that's punishment enough."

In 1839, one writer expressed his satisfaction with the results of the private system of prison employment that prevailed in New York State this way: "It is surprising how little it costs to do good, if we really set ourselves to work in the right way." That's not naïve. It's still true today. The opportunity to turn prisons from failures into successes beckons.