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Prison labor idea above the bar for creative thinking

Editorial

Posted: Sunday, August 21, 2005

Chalk one up to creative thinking.

The state Department of Corrections has announced a plan to partner with private companies to utilize cheap prison labor and prison space for commercial purposes at three prisons in the state, including Wildwood Correctional Center in Kenai.

Somebody deserves a gold star for this idea.

The plan is to reincarnate the Alaska Correctional Industries program with the private sector footing the bill. The program offers inmates a chance to learn new skills as well as the traits necessary to land and hold a job once they are released from prison.

Private companies would lease shop and office space at Wildwood or prisons in Fairbanks and Palmer for 60 percent of the market rate. The lease money would pay for management of the program and is supposed to make it self-sufficient. Businesses also would deal with repairs, utilities and maintenance.

For its part, the Department of Corrections would provide security and the work force. Prisoners would get paid a nominal amount, between 85 cents and $1.60 an hour.

The Alaska Correctional Industries program isn’t new. At Wildwood up to 50 prisoners used to make furniture for state offices and nonprofit organizations in a 12,500-square-foot shop. At the Palmer Correctional Center, 5,800 square feet was dedicated to an auto body repair shop where state vehicles were serviced. The Fairbanks Correctional Center used to house a sewing operation in a 5,800-square-foot space.

The program ended because of a lack of funding, not because it wasn’t working.

In an idealistic view, prisons should be more than just a place to stash lawbreakers until it’s time to flush them back out into society. Simply isolating someone for a certain period of time often isn’t enough to keep them from falling into the same behaviors that got them in trouble in the first place. This strategy of just sending someone away to think about what they’ve done doesn’t always work with unruly 5-year-olds, much less adults who have done things way worse than teasing a sibling or scribbling on a wall.

Rehabilitation programs, whether it’s counseling, anger management training, education, an alcoholics anonymous program or job training, can increase a prisoner’s chance of creating a better life and staying out of prison for good.

In the real world of strapped budgets, red tape and bureaucracies, however, there aren’t always enough resources to aid the needy members of society who haven’t committed crimes, much less those who have.

That’s why the idea to bring private businesses in to support the Alaska Correctional Industries program is a good one. The businesses benefit from the cheap leases and labor, while the prisons get a rehabilitation program without having to pay for it.

There has been some concern raised about prisoners being exploited under this program, especially since they’d be working for $1.60 an hour, at most.

The phrase “prisoner exploitation” conjures up images of old B-rate prison movies where despondent inmates are forced to stamp out license plates while burly guards stand watch. The only thing they learned was to dislike authority, and probably license plates.

In the real world, prison labor programs don’t work like that. Obviously the wage prisoners would be paid is far below what would be considered a fair price in the working world. But, let’s not forget, they are in prison. Would it be fair to offer inmates a competitive wage to fix cars or make furniture when unemployed workers outside prison wouldn’t get a shot at such a job? They’re getting a chance to learn job skills and an opportunity to do something useful while in prison. That’s their reward. The money is just icing on the cake.

Other concerns about exploitation, such as creating a situation where it is beneficial to keep inmates in prison where they can keep working, can be addressed. For instance, the program doesn’t have to be mandatory. Let inmates apply for the jobs if they want them, just like they would in the working world. If they slack off on the job or otherwise don’t prove worthy of the opportunity, then let another prisoner give it a try. Likewise, if an inmate feels they’re being taken advantage of, they can quit.

Additional issues need to be considered, as well, such as how long these prison-private business contracts would last, what sort of review system would be set up to make sure the program is working as it should, what the market for prison-made products would be and if those products would unfairly compete with other businesses.

None of these concerns are insurmountable, especially considering how beneficial this program could be.

With continued planning, this could shape up to be one of those rare, blue-moon occurrences: a win-win situation.



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