Inmate Workforce Can Fill Job Shortage: Inmates Are Productive, Dependable, Take Pride in Quality

Amidst reports this week about whether the economy is in recession, one statistic caught my immediate attention-the long-term labor shortage. The lack of qualified workers seriously threatens sustained economic growth, especially in the manufacturing sector. To address this dilemma, the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA) and the Enterprise Prison Institute (EPI) held a Congressional briefing in Washington, D.C. to learn ways to address this critical shortage. Surprisingly, one of the best answers will also make America safer: putting inmates to work.

The reason America faces a long-term shortage of labor is demographic-retirement rates and longevity are increasing. As a result, the number of retirees is increasing. So in order to maintain per capita income growth, either the rest of the work force must increase productivity or more workers must enter the labor force. Usually, that means some retirees must return to work or we must open our borders to more immigrants, or both.

But there is another opportunity. EPI President Knut Rostad told attendees at the conference that due to the labor shortage, manufacturers are increasingly turning to the inmate population for qualified workers. In fact, EPI released a recent survey by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) showing how successfully inmates have performed and why manufacturers use them.

The EPI/NAM survey singled out the labor shortage as the most important reason manufacturers turned to the inmate labor force; fewer (19%) did so out of a sense of social responsibility and even fewer (11%) to lower labor costs. Why turn to inmates?-Because they are motivated, dependable, maintain a good attitude and, most important, are productive. In addition, they are not affected by security procedures and frequent turnover. In fact employers have been pleased with inmate workers:

  • More than half (58%) have hired released inmates.
  • Manufacturers who employ inmate workers rank them as more productive than domestic workers (6.4 on a ten-point scale where 5 is "as productive"), when domestic workers could be found.
  • So they also have heavily recommended inmate labor (92%) to other businesses.

Rostad also said that the inmates have attained high productivity levels by learning more than basic employment skills. According to the EPI/NAM survey employers say inmate workers learn how to work as a team. They become dependable and responsible for their work and themselves. Beyond learning task-specific job skills, they also take pride in productivity and the quality of their work. In other words, inmates acquire the very same skills working in prison that manufacturers say they desperately seek in available domestic workers.

The opportunity for state political leaders could not be clearer. Many state budgets are overflowing with red ink heavily due to the rising costs of prisons. Ninety three percent of state inmates remain unemployed and "warehoused," unable to help pay for their own incarceration-virtually assuring that most will return to crime after release. Meanwhile, there are American manufacturers who face a workforce crisis and cannot find enough production workers with basic skills even during the recent economic slowdown.

"Their (the inmates') idleness contrasts sharply with the circumstances of their 19th-century counterparts," said Morgan O. Reynolds, chief economist for the Department of Labor and on leave of absence as senior fellow at the NCPA, in a 1996 NCPA brief analysis on inmate labor. "Three-fourths worked and two-thirds were contracted to private entrepreneurs and farmers to produce goods for the general marketplace.

"Under that system, many prisons posted financial surpluses rather than burdening taxpayers," Reynolds continued. "Few prisoners served more than one term, suggesting much lower recidivism than today."

Over the years, however, a series of federal and state laws have made it increasingly difficult for either prison authorities or private firms to employ inmates. This prevents prisons from recouping the costs of housing inmates, it also frustrates efforts to obtain restitution for crime victims.

The employment of inmates has benefits beyond current and future labor shortages. While we get a more productive and growing economy, inmates learn how to work, giving them a way to make a living outside of prison. That not only makes for a stronger American economy, it also makes us safer.