The world of American prison labor is far more advanced than in the days of chain gang trash pickup and license plate manufacturing. Today, prison workers make everything from road signs to eyeglasses to clothing. Supporters of correctional industries say inmates pick up valuable job skills and experiences that make them less likely to end up back in prison. Critics say the low wages — typically pennies per hour — are unfair to both prisoners and private companies, which can’t compete with such low wages.
“As a result of that, our members lose contracts, factories close, people lose jobs and ultimately companies go out of business,” said Steve Lamar, executive vice president of the American Apparel & Footwear Association.
Brimar Industries makes traffic and safety signs, including custom jobs. To see how it operates, Marketplace bought a classic green street sign labeled “Market Pl.” On a recent visit to the company’s New Jersey factory, workers made swift work of the job. Brimar also makes stop signs, yield signs, railroad signs and just about everything else drivers are familiar with. But it is not a player in the giant signs hanging on freeway overpasses. It’s not lack of capability. The problem is that prison industries have the market locked up in many states.
“It’s a very difficult, and in some cases even an impossible business to enter,” explained Jason Hodulik, Brimar’s chief marketing officer. “There’s no way you can compete with the wages.”
Research shows the job training inmates get in prison makes them less likely to re-offend. Prison labor supporters say it also has benefits for American business.
“We try very hard to partner with the private sector,” said Karen Brown, director of North Carolina’s inmate work program and president of the National Correctional Industries Association. “We tell them, ‘We are training and preparing offenders to come to work for you.’”
North Carolina inmate Bill Spainhour works at a road sign plant inside a medium security facility, where prisoners prepare road signs of all kinds. He sees his work behind bars as valuable experience.
At Brimar, Hodulik said business is great, even if prison labor controls a sizable part of the market.
“There is a sense of frustration there,” he said. “But I wouldn’t call it unfair. I would call it a reality that we have worked around.”
And that’s what the private sector has to do when the competition is convicts.
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