March 19, 2000
As Prison Labor Grows, So Does the Debate
By DAVID LEONHARDT
TAY MESA, Calif. -- Behind five
barbed-wire fences, four identification checkpoints, two guard towers and one 50,000-volt
electric fence sits one of the few remaining solutions to America's tightest labor market
in 30 years.
Every weekday, some 100 prisoners report for work at one of three private companies
here at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, a series of squat buildings hidden
among the hills at the base of Otay Mountain, just five miles from the Mexican border. The
men, convicted murderers and robbers among them, stitch T-shirts, recycle tires and make
beer and wine vats.
Other than the workers' uniformly blue outfits and the armed guards who occasionally
patrol the factory floors, the workplace looks quite normal. A radio plays the Beatles'
"Here Comes the Sun" and Queen's "We Will Rock You." Hunched over
sewing machines or welding together stainless steel vats, the men earn about $5.75 an
hour, the California minimum wage. The products end up attached to trendy clothing labels
like No Fear and in upscale pubs.
With unemployment low and a record number of Americans behind bars, prison labor is
coming to mean much more than painting license plates. As inmates undertake everything
from telemarketing to the manufacturing of computer circuit boards and furniture, the
change has caused a growing debate, playing out in state legislatures and in two bills
before Congress, over the role the nation's two million prisoners should play in its
Across the country, more than 80,000 inmates now hold traditional jobs, working for
governments or private companies and earning 25 cents to $7 an hour. The private sector
programs, which exist in 36 states and employ 3,500, have doubled in size since 1995 after
years of almost no growth. And the federal program that employs 21,000 inmates, up 14
percent in the last two years, and that has $600 million in annual sales, is seeking to
Both supporters and opponents agree the debate is at a critical juncture because
employment in prisons could spread quickly in the coming years. On virtually every other
question, however -- whether prison labor helps inmates or is cruel to them, whether it is
an economic benefit or a force holding down wages -- the two sides differ vehemently.
Supporters of the employment of inmates include law enforcement officials who view the
programs as a way to reform convicts and business groups who see inexpensive labor. Many
prisoners want to work, the backers say, and they point to research showing that inmates
who work are less likely to commit crimes when they are released.
"It's a problem for corrections officers to have prisoners without anything
constructive to do," said Edwin Meese III, the former United States attorney general,
who lobbies for expanded inmate labor as chairman of the Enterprise Prison Institute, a
Bethesda, Md., research group financed by state grants, research centers and private
In addition, supporters say, prisoners offer the ultimate in a flexible and dependable
work force. "If I lay them off for a week," said Pierre Sleiman, the owner of
the T-shirt company at Donovan, referring to his workers, "I don't have to worry
about someone else coming and saying, 'Come work for me.' "
To opponents, inmate labor is both a potential human rights abuse and a threat to
workers outside prison walls. Inmates have no bargaining power and are easily exploited,
the critics say. In one California lawsuit, for example, two prisoners have sued both
their employer and the prison, saying they were put in solitary confinement after
complaining about working conditions.
The opponents also say the programs have stolen jobs from outside workers and hold down
wages for other workers. Inmate labor, said Gordon Lafer, a political science professor at
the University of Oregon, "is a decent-sized problem that is poised to explode."
Most of the companies now in the program are small.
Earlier in the 1990's, big companies like AT&T and Microsoft hired inmates, but
most backed away after the arrangements were exposed. Some big companies, like the
retailer Target, still use suppliers that employ prisoners.
Prison labor in the United States has its roots in the 1800's, when inmates worked for
private companies without pay. After hundreds died on the job because of hazardous
conditions, unions and prison reformers demanded a halt the practice.
In 1934, however, federal prison officials concerned about growing unrest in prisons
lobbied to create a work program. Companies got involved again in 1979, when Congress
passed a law allowing them to hire prisoners in some circumstances.
For most of the last two decades, the programs remained tiny. But the tough drug and
sentencing laws of the 1980's helped increase the number of Americans behind bars by 80
percent, to two million, in a decade. The unemployment rate, meanwhile, was falling.
"Now the economy is very good, and businesses are looking to the prison system for
labor," said Noreen Blonien, an assistant director of the California Department of
Officials at the federal Bureau of Prisons hope the same logic will enable them to
expand their program, the nation's largest, to include private sector jobs like those at
Donovan. Representative Bill McCollum, a Florida Republican, has offered a bill that would
allow the bureau to do so, as long as the company hiring inmates could show it was not
moving existing jobs behind bars. The jobs would also pay more than the 21 cents to $1.15
an hour that the inmates now in the program earn.
A competing bill, meanwhile, from Representative Pete Hoekstra, a Michigan Republican,
could cause the federal program to scale back by forcing it to compete with private
companies for the government contracts it now fills.
"What you end up with, in certain cases, is the federal government getting
inferior products at higher prices," said Mr. Hoekstra, who has the support of both
the United States Chamber of Commerce and the A.F.L.-C.I.O.
In recent weeks, the lawmakers' aides have discussed a combined bill that would both
force state-run prison operations to compete with private enterprises and allow companies
to hire federal inmates. "We're very close to a compromise," Mr. McCollum said.
If they cannot reach one, the lawmakers say they will offer their bills separately.
Away from Washington, the debate over inmates working for private companies is less
One business employing inmates is C.M.T. Blues, the T-shirt company here in the
country's southwesternmost corner, and it has been home to virtually every argument on
both sides of the issue.
Five years ago, in nearby Chula Vista, Mr. Sleiman was running a business that imported
clothing, and he was considering opening his own operation. He was looking to Honduras, he
said, where workers earn about $1.75 an hour. "In our industry, all of the business
is going offshore," Mr. Sleiman said. Then he heard about California's prison work
program. Under it, Mr. Sleiman would have to pay the inmates $5.75 an hour, but he could
make up some of the expense elsewhere.
For C.M.T.'s factory, Mr. Sleiman pays less than a fifth of what he would elsewhere in
rent and electricity. He also receives a 25 percent discount on workers' compensation
insurance and tax credits.
But he soon found out that setting up shop in a prison is no panacea. Delivery and
pickup times must be scheduled precisely. Mr. Sleiman also trained many of the workers
from scratch, he said. Then he had to convince them to work together.
"On paper, it looked very good," Mr. Sleiman said. In reality, he added,
"it has been a tough road."
It has been even tougher for the inmates, according to a lawsuit filed last summer by
two former Donovan prisoners. To work at C.M.T., inmates had to go through a 60-day
"training period" for which they were not paid, according to the suit. It also
says workers were given unrealistic production quotas and were told to replace "Made
in Honduras" labels on some fabric with 'Made in the U.S.A." tags.
After the inmates, Charles Ervin and Shearwood Fleming, got in touch with a local
television show and it broadcast their charges, they were fired, put in solitary
confinement for more than 45 days and eventually transferred to another prison.
Mr. Sleiman said the length of training programs varies and that the accusations about
quotas and the labels were untrue. A California Department of Corrections investigation
into the label-switching charge was inconclusive, a state spokeswoman said. Prisoners
understood the conditions of the training program when they applied to work at C.M.T., she
Whatever the problems, though, California prison officials said the private sector jobs
remain far more popular among inmates than washing sheets or even building government
furniture. At most state prisons where private companies operate, there are waiting lists
to be hired.
"When we step through the gates and into the shop," said Allen W. Smith, 45,
a T-shirt worker who is serving a 13-year sentence for robbery, "this is a company.
This isn't prison." Guards still keep watch, but the atmosphere differs greatly from
prison yards, the inmates said.
The private sector jobs also pay at least the minimum wage, although prisoners in most
states keep only a fraction of their pay.
Compared with other jobs at Donovan, "it's great," said Frank W. Owen, 39,
who was convicted of a 1982 murder and has worked for C.M.T. for four years. "I've
been able to save some money."
Mr. Owen also said he hoped his record at C.M.T. would help him earn parole.
Mr. Sleiman, meanwhile, said C.M.T. was doing better now that he had learned how to
operate in a prison. Over the 18 months, he added, he plans to triple his work force to