NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Prison Labor Fell

April 13, 2000

Taxpayers are spending $40 billion a year to subsidize the forced leisure of two million prison inmates, says Morgan Reynolds, director of the NCPA's Criminal Justice Center. Those costs could be reduced, and prisoners could become productive, if prison labor were encouraged, rather than tightly regulated or banned altogether.

  • The prison population has grown so fast that the share of state and federal prisoners with real (wage-earning) jobs has dropped from 7.6 percent to 6.5 percent since 1990, according to the American Bar Association.
  • Yet prisoners could easily create at least $20 billion in extra value annually.
  • And study after study shows that employment before release not only improves behavior behind bars, but also serves as the strongest antidote to crime after release.
  • Ninety-five percent of inmates will eventually get out of prison -- but if they have few or no work skills they are likely to return to crime and to prison.

An inmate working at $7 an hour can easily earn $14,000 a year. Eighty percent of his or her earnings are customarily used to reduce dependency on taxpayers, compensate victims and pay court costs. The remainder is available for personal consumption, help for the prisoner's family and savings for use upon release.

Unfortunately, Depression-era laws restrict prison industries and the market for prison-made products is largely limited to things like furniture and license plates that government agencies are required to buy. Repealing these laws and privatizing the Federal Prison Industries (FPI) so that it can effectively promote the use of prison labor to businesses would yield an even larger return to society than the gains from welfare reform.

Source: Morgan Reynolds, "Reducing prison unemployment," Washington Times, April 9, 2000.


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