The scene could be a furniture factory anywhere in the country. Some men are welding unfinished filing cabinets; others work on pressing machines, turning sheets of metal into tubular legs and other components.
But this isn't anywhere: It's the medium-security Maryland Correctional Institute (MCI) in Hagerstown. The factory, one of three at the prison, makes metal furniture for various state institutions.
“We're currently working on an order for 4,500 beds for the University of Maryland,” says Warden Lloyd “Pete” Waters, pointing to a string of unfinished bed frames hanging from a long cable.
Warden Lloyd “Pete” Waters views prison jobs as an effective rehabilitation tool. (Photo Credit, David Masci, Congressional Quarterly)
Waters is among many prison officials who view prison jobs as one of the best rehabilitation tools they have.
“This teaches them responsibility and to behave properly,” Waters says, pointing out that inmates can lose their coveted -- if low-paying -- jobs if they're not good workers or if they get into trouble. “And besides, it gives them a trade that they can use after they're released.”
“I think it has tremendous rehabilitative value,” says Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a conservative think tank in Sacramento, Calif. “People have to learn to obey the rules and finish the job.”
Timothy Brown, an inmate at MCI who operates a pressing machine, says that the program is helping him to turn his life around. “This has taught me to be a responsible person, to work hard and show up on time.” It also gives Brown, who has served 10 years of a 35-year sentence for second-degree murder, an opportunity to help his family. “I'm able to send money home to my mother and to my kids, and that's wonderful.”
MCI's three factories -- there is also a meat-processing plant and another furniture operation -- are among 30 factories operated in 26 Maryland prisons by State Use Industries (SUI). The state-run manufacturing operation employs 1,300 inmates, bringing in more than $30 million in revenue each year by supplying the state with office furniture, food products and, of course, license plates.
But SUI only employs 5.7 percent of the states 22,500 inmates.
To a large extent, Maryland and other states that manufacture products used by state institutions deliberately limit the number of inmates they put to work, and hence limit their output. That's because the use of prison labor draws opposition from both unions and businesses, who complain that the very low wages typically paid to inmates makes profit-making firms unable to compete with prison products. At MCI for instance, inmates usually earn up to $2.50 a day, working from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
“This is a problem, especially for [organized] labor, since inmates make a small fraction of what workers outside do,” says Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Washington-based Sentencing Project, which promotes sentencing reform. “I think everyone would feel better about this if prisoners were paid close to the prevailing wage.”
Similar concerns attach to proposals for using prison labor in the private sector. Existing federal law bans the interstate sale of products produced by prisoners for private industry. As a result, only about 2,000 prisoners nationwide work for private businesses.
But others say that using more prisoners in the private sector will not negatively impact the economy. “We have a labor shortage in this country right now,” says Morgan Reynolds, director of the Criminal Justice Center at the National Center for Policy Analysis in Dallas. “At the same time, we have more than a million able-bodied men who are literally doing nothing and would benefit tremendously from a steady job. It's a no-brainer.”