In Alabama prisons, orange may be the new green. Now here's a compliant labor force that isn't likely to ask for raises, sue for discrimination, or try to join a union: convicts. It could be the perfect solution for private businesses looking for cheap labor, so of course, Alabama is looking into it.
The Alabama Department of Corrections is preparing to seek federal approval to place private businesses' production facilities inside prison walls, joining 38 states that allow businesses to use inmate labor on prison grounds.
If the proposed rules receive federal approval DOC will begin work to prepare space to accommodate industry and start an outreach effort to recruit businesses, said Andy Farquhar, head of DOC’s prison industries program.
Two questions here:
- Where will the space come from? Alabama's prisons are dangerously overcrowded and operate at almost 200% of capacity. It's bad enough that Republican State Senator Cam Ward warns about federal intervention.
- Will “business recruitment” include some sort of incentive – aka corporate welfare? Handing over public money to private businesses (with little or no accountability) is a state sport second only to college football.
This second point has been an inssue in other states. A state prison in Canon City, CO is engaged in a number of activities – from dog training to processing tilapia fillets for Whole Foods.
The tilapia program gives Jay and nearly 100 other inmates at minimum- security Arrowhead Correctional Center in Canon City something to do for a nominal wage.
Richardson, who has three daughters, talks eagerly about the prospect of leaving prison with a skill he could eventually use to land a high-paying job at a Seattle or Alaska fish-processing plant.
There's the upside: inmates employed in prison businesses have lower recidivism rates and better chances of landing decent jobs when they leave prison. However, this program also competes with local businesses and may depress wages of the local work force:
Professor Keith Bender, Ph.D., a labor economist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, weighed in with his thoughts via email earlier today.
“I guess I am of two minds on this,” he wrote. “On the one hand, the program seems to be a good example of giving skills to the inmates that they could use for employment when they are released from prison. That it 'pays for itself' is an added bonus, in that no extra public funds are being used in the rehabilitation program.
“But while this may be the case, I do worry about the bigger picture. It does give a somewhat unfair advantage to either the prison system or the fish producers that use the prison to process the fish. This is particularly important in this industry, since (seemingly) the cost of imported fish is so much lower because of some combination of lower labor costs and less 'stringent' production quality. That is, the only way that local producers make a profit is by using a labor source that effectively is on a similar wage scale as foreign producers.”
On the bright side, if this plan does go through, perhaps Mike Hubbard & company might finally learn some useful job skills & be able to get out of the “graft & corruption” business.