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Prison laborers get jobs from stimulus

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Kai Ryssdal: The federal stimulus package that Congress passed back in February was really about one thing: jobs. Lots of 'em. The government is spending almost $800 billion to put Americans back to work. Today the White House said the stimulus bill has saved or created as many as two million jobs. A figure, it should be said, that is not universally accepted.

Karen Weise explains that who is getting those jobs can sometimes be surprising.


KAREN WEISE: Barges that float down the Mississippi River carry more than half of the nation's grain exports to the port of New Orleans.

ALAN DOOLEY: You could call it a waterborne interstate highway, if you would.

Alan Dooley is the spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers in St. Louis. The Army Corps operates a series of locks and dams that allow barges to maneuver down the river. And for the boats to do that safely, the area needs giant signs.

DOOLEY: These signs vary from the size that you might see along a hiking trail to the other extreme signs that are 30-feet long that are mounted on the locks and dams.

Some of the river's signs needed to be replaced, so the Army Corps dipped into its pot of federal stimulus funds. It bought $143,000 worth of signs from a company called Unicor.

But Unicor's not your typical sign company. It's run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and uses inmates to do its work. Unicor pays inmates an average of 93 cents an hour to make everything from office furniture to solar panels to signs. All told, Unicor has almost $900,000 in stimulus contracts so far.

NORMAN HAWKINS: We think it's terrible. There's too many people need a job, not the prisoners.

Norman Hawkins runs a sign company in Berkeley, Calif. He says, forget the prisons, his company could use the stimulus work.

HAWKINS: But then they go into sad math about oh, the poor guy, they've got nothing to do all day long, and we're tryin' to keep them busy. That's true, but why pick on people who are law-abiding citizens, though? Why take their income?

Hawkins is 89, and his father started their company over 60 years ago. Now, Hawkins Traffic Supply employs around 20 people in a shop right off Interstate 80.

HAWKINS: Matter of fact, when they opened this highway, we made the first signs for 'em.

Now, half of their business is from government contracts, but not from the Army Corps.

ALAN DOOLEY: It might be something that people might look at and say "Well, why would you employ people in a prison?"

The Army Corps' Alan Dooley.

DOOLEY: But the stimulus package does not exempt us from existing federal regulations.

And believe it or not, those regulations said the Army Corps had to give the sign contracts to Unicor. Now, those regulations are generally seen as a good thing; they're supposed to minimize fraud and waste. But in this case, the use of prison labor diverges from the goals of stimulating job creation.

STEVE ELLIS: It certainly is a head scratcher, I'll put it that way.

Steve Ellis is a vice president at Taxpayers for Common Sense, a non-partisan government watchdog.

ELLIS: The idea that we are sending stimulus dollars to prison industries really flies in the face of the unemployment lines that we're seeing across the country.

Ellis realizes that Unicor's $900,000 worth of contracts is just a fraction of the overall stimulus program. But he says it's a good example of competing priorities in the stimulus. He says the program was supposed to create jobs, to create them quickly, and to improve the country's infrastructure. And it was supposed to do all of this while following the usual contracting guidelines to minimize waste.

Ellis says we just can't have it all.

The Army Corps' Dooley points out that at least some local employers will benefit from the sign project along the Mississippi.

DOOLEY: People are going to work to manufacture the material, and to deliver the signs and to install the signs.

Don't forget, inmates can't do all the work -- the part that has to happen outside prison walls.

I'm Karen Weise for Marketplace.

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