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September 14, 2011

"Prison work crews cut in cost-savings move"

The title of this post is the headline of this new USA Today article, which gets started this way:

Prison inmate labor programs, long considered a lower-cost option for needed public work projects such as clearing debris and cutting weeds on highways, are increasingly facing elimination or reduction because of budget issues.

Michigan and North Carolina are the latest to completely eliminate their programs, and Florida reduced its program by nearly 40% this year.

Michigan lawmakers stopped funding the Michigan Department of Corrections' 15 crews this year, even as more requests for inmate labor poured in from communities.   "We actually stopped all but one work crew (which the requester fully funded) in September 2010," according to Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman John Cordell.

It cost Michigan taxpayers $10 million last year to operate the crews.  Most of that cost was for transportation and supervision of the inmates, he said.   Cordell said there are plans to reinstate inmate crews Oct. 1, but with a major difference.   "We will have to charge the entities who use the crews," Cordell said. "We just can't subsidize the program anymore."

September 14, 2011 at 10:02 AM | Permalink


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I'd be interested, from an accounting standpoint, to know if cutting these programs actually saves money at all. I understand that the states subsidize these programs, but how much is it going to cost to contract private companies to provide these services that the inmates do for the cost of transportation and supervision?

Either the debris and weeds aren't going to be cleared away, or the individual communities will have to foot the bill for these services. But where do the communities get their funding? Same place the state does. It seems to just be moving costs from one column to another.

Posted by: Eric Matthews | Sep 14, 2011 10:20:30 AM

I think the approach in the last paragraph is correct. The entity receiving services should pay DoC for the cost, and if the cost exceeds that of a private contractor, they will hire the contractor instead.

That said, I think prison work is a good thing. Even if the skills used in the work are not in demand on the outside, the mindset of getting up every day and working for wages is a good one to get inmates into, even if the wages are only a few bucks for canteen money.

Labor unions have long been vehement opponents of selling prison-made goods in the general economy on the theory that it takes away jobs from law-abiding workers. So prison labor has been limited to sales to the government itself. But the government-as-customer limitation is wrong from a job-saving perspective. We should be looking at whether there is any substantial American manufacturing of goods in the relevant market segment. If nearly everything in that segment is imported, as is true for many categories of goods, then prison-made goods should be freely marketable in the category.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Sep 14, 2011 1:35:48 PM

Why don't we just "go back to the good old days" of renting out convict crews?

Posted by: Tim | Sep 16, 2011 5:15:44 AM

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