NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Work In Prison

April 4, 2001

Two problems for which there is a common solution are the 93 percent unemployment rate behind the gates of American prisons and a workforce shortage that threatens American competitiveness.

This year more than 600,000 convicts will be released from prisons (most on parole).

  • Only nine percent of these inmates have had full-time vocational training or education programs while in prison, and fewer still gained any real work experience.
  • In a typical state prison, only seven percent of inmates work in jobs producing goods and services for use beyond prison fences.

Unsurprisingly, many end up in prison again. Only 50 percent of parolees successfully completed their parole in 1990, and by 1999 the figure had shrunk to 43 percent.

This "high unemployment/recidivism" syndrome coexists with a workforce crisis. The National Association of Manufacturers says that a "skills gap threatens U.S. competitiveness," a gap that often involves poor work habits like workers failing to "get to work on time and stay for a full day."

Manufacturing, assembly and service jobs are being sent offshore due to the domestic skills gap; but what might be called an "InPrison" operation can provide an excellent, cost-effective domestic alternative.

A Deloitte & Touche study in 1999 analyzed the unit labor costs and productivity of InPrison manufacturing settings and concluded that using inmates in tasks with a relatively short learning curve results in "greater than standard productivity" and "direct labor cost savings."

Furthermore, there is evidence the recidivism rate can be reduced by providing opportunities for work in prison.

There are conflicting interests surrounding prison labor policy, but experts say progress could be made with leadership from the Bush administration.

Source: Morgan Reynolds (Director, NCPA Criminal Justice Center) and Knut Rostad (President, Enterprise Prison Institute), "Creating Factories Behind Bars," Brief Analysis No. 354, April 4, 2001, National Center for Policy Analysis.

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