NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Increasing Prison Labor

June 3, 2002

Opposition from unions and businesses fearing competition from cheap prison labor has prevented reform of the Federal Prison Industries (FPI) -- a government-owned corporation that has a monopoly on federal prison labor -- to allow employment of prisoners by private firms. Currently, prisoners work only for the FPI, and the goods they produce may only be sold to government agencies.

FPI employs more than 22,500 prisoners; but if restrictions were lifted, several hundred thousand might be employed. The increased employment of prisoners would help reduce crime and offset the cost of imprisonment, according to a study by the Progressive Policy Institute, the policy arm of the Democratic Leadership Council.

  • A study by the New York State Department of Correctional Services found that 54 percent of prisoners who did not work during their incarceration eventually retuned to prison, while only 34 percent of the group who worked were re-incarcerated.
  • If inmates were allowed to work in the private sector, their earnings would help pay for their food and housing -- alleviating the $40 billion annual cost of incarcerating the country's criminals, as well as allowing them to pay restitution and child support.
  • Prisoners in 36 states are allowed to work for private firms.
  • Furthermore, allowing prisoners to be contracted in the private sector would increase Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Free trade reduces prices by using low-cost, Third World labor to produce some goods, freeing capital and labor in the United States for more productive employment. Increased productivity raises economic growth rates. Similarly, employing idle prisoners would increase GDP and create jobs in other sectors for any civilians displaced by lower-cost labor.

Source: Robert D. Akinson, "Prison Labor: It's More Than Breaking Rocks," Policy Report, May 23, 2002, Progressive Policy Institute.


Browse more articles on Government Issues