Ga. inmates' 'free' work has a price
System of prison industries lost $11.5 million over six years
By Bill Torpy
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
ATLANTA — It's a popular idea in these tough economic times: Take Georgia's 60,000 prisoners, who cost taxpayers more than $1 billion a year to house, and put them to work.
The agriculture commissioner wants to use them to pick crops. One cash-strapped Georgia county wants to use them to fight fires.
"I voted to get tough on crime. We got tough on crime. Now we're paying to keep 60,000 prisoners," said state Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, a veteran legislator. "Instead of sitting in bed, inmates should be working or learning skills."
But the age-old effort to get labor out of inmates isn't as black and white as the striped uniforms of yesteryear's chain gangs.
Free labor doesn't necessarily mean savings. A state audit released last year said the prison system's in-house industries lost $11.5 million over a six-year span ending in 2009.
And others argue that instead of performing menial tasks, inmates should be acquiring education and skills that will keep them from returning to prison, especially with the prison population at an all-time high.
Prisoners in Georgia now work a wide range of jobs, both inside and outside the prison walls.
Inside, prisoners cook, maintain facilities, do laundry, farm and man factory jobs. Outside, work crews pick up trash, mow rights of way, repair roads and even restore historic buildings.
The Georgia Department of Corrections says 9,000 prisoners each year perform jobs for cities and counties.
Still, "people think, 'You're paying a billion dollars, so they should be doing something to offset it,' " said Wayne Garner, the mayor of Carrollton and former head of the Corrections Department in the 1990s.
Georgia inmates aren't paid for their work, making the labor an attractive option for state officials. Garner noted that convict carpenters are refurbishing the city's old train depot. That work, officials said, was estimated to be $1 million, but the free labor cut the cost to a third of that.
Inmates also work six Corrections Department farms, 14,150 acres, providing prisons with 43 percent of their food. The farming operation is one part of Georgia Correctional Industries, a prison-run entity that runs 18 factories in 15 prisons.
Prison officials tout the program as self-sufficient, giving prisoners skills and keeping them from returning to prison.
State agencies are mandated to purchase the prison-manufactured goods, ranging from desks, chairs and mattresses, to boots, eyeglasses and wax stripper.
But despite the free labor, Correctional Industries, at times, has lost money, according to a state audit released last year.
According to the audit, the industries generated $36.7 million in 2009 but cost $40.3 million to buy supplies and pay supervisors, truck drivers, marketers and other operations people needed to run the plants.
The farming operation losses in 2009 totaled almost $1.2 million, the audit found.
Scott Stallings, assistant executive director of Correctional Industries, said the economy hurt the prison industries. Besides, making a profit isn't the aim of the programs, he said. "Our mission is to train inmates and provide job skills and make it so they don't come back. That's our reason for being."
Correctional Industries, he said, is now under new leadership and is operating on a profit this year. And statistics show that inmates involved in prison industries are up to 25 percent more likely not to return to prison, he said.
"We're in the process of right-sizing our operations; we have turned the corner, we hope," Stalling said.
But Kevin Levitas, a former legislator from Atlanta, has criticized Correctional Industries, saying it unfairly competes against private businesses, such as his family's chemical manufacturing business.
Oftentimes, he said, better goods can be purchased more cheaply in the private market.
"The state gives each agency money to buy goods from the prisons," he said. "It's an appropriation that goes from one agency to another. There's no independent sales and no competition. There's no incentive for performance or to improve your product."
Levitas' company has tried to sell products to the state, he said, but purchasing agents who complain about the quality of some prison goods have told him their hands are tied when it comes to buying outside products.
"We have customers say, 'We don't like these products, but we have to buy them,' " Levitas recounted.
Paul Wright, editor of the Vermont-based Prison Legal News, the nation's largest newspaper for prisoners, said audits have repeatedly shown prison industries to be money losers.
"Prisons aren't geared for productivity," he said. "When you come down to it, prisoners aren't a great workforce. People assume because they are not getting paid, there's no cost. That's not the case.
There's the guards and the bureaucracy."
Wright said educating prisoners with college-type programs is more effective at making parolees successful. But, he said, prison systems have cut such education programs.
Powell, the legislator, agrees but said prison labor programs work, too.
"The old county work camps were great. There just aren't enough of them anymore," he said. "The state gets better results out of a prisoner on 12 months hard labor than three years sitting in a cell.
If the taxpayers pay to fight fires and build roads or pick up trash, then let the prisoners do it."
Many prison firefighter teams around the state work alongside paid and volunteer departments. Camden County officials are considering putting inmate firefighters in stations alongside paid firefighters.
To expand the inmate workforce, and let inmates make money, the state Legislature passed a bill in 2005 that would allow the state to participate in a federal program in which prisoners could work for private companies.
The federal program, called Prison Industry Enhancement, allows prisoners to be paid a prevailing wage and work in private industry when there is a worker shortage.
The wages would be split to pay the state for housing, victims restitution and court-ordered fines. The prisoner would be allowed to keep a percentage of his or her earnings.
But the program, possibly because of the recession, has never taken hold in Georgia. Just 34 prisoners take part.
The state could use the program to have prisoners harvest the state's crops. Some farmers have complained the state's tough new immigration law has scared away many potential workers, leaving them short.
State Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said the idea is in the formation stages.
"I don't know if it'll be 40 or 400," he said. "We're not emptying the prisons to pick vegetables."
Copyright 2011 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution