Commentary by Pete du Pont

Most people would agree that if prisoners learned a skill while they were in jail they could more easily get a job when they got out, and that an ex-prisoner with a job is less likely to commit another crime. Since nearly one-half of people released from prison return to prison within three years, job skills could mean a significant decline in the crime rate.

The problem is that most productive prison work - other than food or laundry work within the prison itself - is against the law.

In 1936, Congress banned convict labor on federal contracts exceeding $10,000 in value. In 1940 the Ashurst-Sumners Act made it a federal crime to transport convict-made goods in interstate commerce. And many state legislatures have enacted laws to prohibit the sale of convict-made goods within their borders. States like New York compromised and adopted the "state-use" system, which permitted convicts to manufacture goods for sale to governmental agencies only, which provides a very limited market for the fruits of convict labor.

These statutes were a form of protectionism - to protect providers of goods and services in the free market from having to compete with convict labor. Small businesses and labor unions view such competition as unfair, and have successfully prevented relaxation of the statutes. When Congress tried to change the laws in 1979, the best it could do was allow prisoner work if they are paid the prevailing wage, labor union officials approve, local labor is unaffected, and no local unemployment is produced. These criteria are nearly impossible to meet, so a mere 1,660 prisoners, out of one million, were working under these waivers in 1994.

It was not always this way. In the last century, prisons earned a major part of their daily cost by leasing convict labor to private employers. In 1885, three-fourths of prison inmates were involved in productive labor, the majority working for private employers under contract and leasing arrangements. By the 1930s only 44% worked, and nearly all worked for state industries rather than for private employers. A 1990 Census found that only 11% of prisoners worked in prison manufacturing or farming, down from 16% in 1984. If part-time work in laundry and food services is included, only about half of prisoners work.

Many prisoners are eager to work, if only to relieve the tedium of prison life. But more important is that the work is good for society in the long run because it reduces crime. A 1983-87 Federal Post-Release Employment Project study confirmed that employed prisoners do better than others without jobs. Prisoners who work have fewer disciplinary problems in prison and lower rates of re-arrest; they are more likely to get a full-time job; more likely to quit their job in favor of a better-paying job; and less likely to have their supervision revoked for a parole violation or new crime. In the words of Thomas Townsend, president of the Corrections Industry Association, "It's a matter of public safety: inmates who have worked in prison, and gained new skills have a significantly better chance of not returning to crime and prison...."

The only disadvantages of more work opportunities for prisoners are the feared competitive effects on local labor markets. But the government's first responsibility is to citizens, not to narrow interest groups. New production benefits all Americans. It raises the demand for their services and creates new goods for purchase. Competition is the strength of our economic system, not a wrong to be righted, so our policies should be breaking down, not erecting, barriers to work - especially when the work will make the streets safer for the rest of us.

Allowing prisoners to work makes sense. Begin by repealing state and federal limitations on inmate pay. Let responsible private businesses competitively bid for the use of prison labor. Let prisons "profit" from accepting these contracts. Provide monetary incentives to prisons and their wardens for leading their institutions to self-sufficiency.

It won't be easy for the private-sector bidders, because prison labor is not easy to use. Difficulties include security problems, lack of skills and good work habits, remote prison locations, and poor worker productivity. At least at the beginning, the market value of prisoner labor will be very low and the quality of their work poor. But both will improve as skills improve.

Across the country a million prisoners are serving time in jail. Each month, 40,000 of them are released under mandatory supervision, on parole, or at the conclusion of their sentences. Our streets would be safer and the crime rate lower if these men had a skill, a job, and the beginning of a future.