NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Using Convict Labor

March 27, 2002

In the last few years, the use of prisoners for manual labor has increased around the country -- particularly in the South and Southwest. The policy not only fills the desperate demand for inexpensive labor, but also helps prisons relieve overcrowding and supplement their budgets. And in hundreds of small towns with shrinking budgets prisoners do work that might not get done at all.

  • A Justice Department survey shows that 124,000 inmates in state prisons -- or 10.4 percent of the total state prison population -- were working off-premises in 2000.
  • Another 45,000 local inmates -- or about 7 percent of those in jail nationally -- were doing the same.
  • Officials in California, Mississippi, Texas and Virginia say they are putting more inmates to work outside prison walls.
  • Advocates of prisoner work programs contend that offenders need to be doing something to prepare themselves for release and to be seen repairing something broken in the community.

Inmates chosen for work assignments are often those nearing the end of their sentences, who would be less likely to do something that would delay their release. Many of the workers take payment in "good time" reductions in their sentences.

For these and other reasons, free citizens have little fear of the prisoners, analysts say. In fact, prisoners in some state capitals maintain governors' mansions and do most of the cleaning and heavy lifting in state houses and museums -- and some even run errands for the police.

Source: Peter T. Kilborn, "Towns with Odd Jobs Galore Turn to Inmates," New York Times, March 27, 2002.


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