Convicts Could Save U.S. Jobs, Reduce Prison Costs

NCPA Study Shows Labor Shortage Cripples U.S. Competition, Pushes Jobs Offshore

DALLAS, Texas (April 11, 2001) -- The solution to America's labor shortage, the high rate of inmate recidivism and an ever-spiraling tax bill for prisons may be the inmates, according to a new analysis released by the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA) and the Enterprise Prison Institute (EPI).

"The answer to all those problems is the inmate workforce. By opening access to the inmate workforce we can reduce inmate recidivism as well as the 93% unemployment rate behind the gates of America's prisons," said Morgan Reynolds, NCPA senior fellow. Reynolds, an economist at Texas A&M University and director of the NCPA's Criminal Justice Center, is co-author of the study with Knut Rostad, president of EPI.

"Today's cooling economy does not change economic fundamentals. We will continue to see chronic labor shortages in the U.S. through 2008. That crisis will trigger a flow of more jobs to Mexico, Asia, and even India. The potential offshore job flow is huge," Rostad added.

How can prisoners help keep US jobs onshore and solve the labor crisis? The NCPA study advocates what EPI calls "InPrison" production centers that perform services like assembly or light manufacturing. "Experience and research reveal business managers who employ inmates inside prison find inmates motivated, reliable and productive," according to the study. A Deloitte & Touche study of prison production facilities corroborates these findings.

The benefits of training and employing inmates are real and tangible. For example, inmates at Central California Women's Facility are assigned to a prison electronics plant. Over several years 33 of these inmates have been paroled; many work today in electronics in Silicon Valley. Only one has returned to prison. That compares to a statewide recidivism rate of 50 percent.

"Keeping jobs onshore by placing them 'InPrison' is critical to reducing crime and saving taxpayer dollars-far more important than we can imagine," Reynolds said.

"When you consider that more than 600-thousand convicts will be released from prison this year and only 9 percent will have any full-time vocational training or education, and fewer still (7 percent) have worked in jobs producing goods and services for use beyond prison fences," Rostad said, "it becomes easier to understand why so many inmates eventually return to prison."

In fact, almost two-thirds of inmates released in any year will return, usually within 3 years. Yet the nation's prison system costs American taxpayers $40 billion annually.

Reynolds and Rostad believe several goals of the InPrison program will garner broad bipartisan support:

  • Replace traditional government-operated prison industries like apparel manufacturing with private businesses that employ inmates in jobs driven by technology.
  • Eliminate the requirement that government agencies must purchase prison-made goods.
  • Encourage partnership, contracts and outsourcing in order to recruit private sector companies for prison production.
  • Encourage faith-based organizations to provide comprehensive programs for inmate training, jobs and mentoring.
  • Monitor the transition to ensure net job additions as new enterprises replace "old economy" prison jobs.

"The objective," Rostad and Reynolds conclude, "is to allow the prison workforce to compete for American jobs headed offshore on terms similar to those of the general marketplace. In the process, prisoners gain work skills and raise the chances of lowering recidivism rates, while industry alleviates its workforce crisis."

Both authors noted that within the past two decades technological and political changes have swept the world economy, upending the former Soviet Union, drastically altering the economy of China and causing the reengineering of business models at the world's greatest corporations. "It's time for those same ideas and forces to change prisons as we know them-to make free market production and wages and common and important inside prison as outside."