Prison Labor: An Inside Job

Originally published at National Journal
By K. Daniel Glover

ALLENWOOD, Pa. — A 30-mile stretch of U.S. 15 on the way north to this village looks just like the road to prison. Pornography shacks, private clubs, and bars dot the landscape, and road signs blare ominous warnings like “D.U.I.: You Can’t Afford It” and “Target Enforcement Area.” Even the advertisement for Dr. Tom’s Leather Goods features a foreboding skull with a devilish half-smile.

But those emblems are far from where the highway meanders to the Federal Correctional Complex just north of Allenwood, where officials are equally concerned about the road away from prison. More than 41,000 federal prisoners nationwide have returned to the streets in each of the past three years, and no one in the Justice Department’s Bureau of Prisons wants to see them take a wrong turn onto Recidivism Road.

The desire to steer convicts away from repeat offenses is part of the rationale behind Federal Prison Industries, a quasi-governmental agency that trains inmates in various trades. FPI’s goal, said Joseph D. Dubaskas Sr., the associate warden of industries at the Allenwood complex and chief of its three factories, is to employ as many prisoners as possible and to “teach them a skill [and] a work ethic that they can take with them when they go to the street.”

“If they’re medically able to work and they want to work,” he said, “we put them to work.”

Some 200 miles away in Washington, the concept of prison labor is a far more complicated matter. Most believe that FPI serves a valuable function. The program keeps the prisoners busy and the penitentiaries more secure, and it teaches trade and business skills to people who may never have worked before. “We get people in here where their only job was to sell drugs on the street,” Dubaskas said.

Yet many lawmakers and interest groups have grown increasingly unhappy with the way FPI conducts its business. Twice in the past few years, Congress has voted to force FPI, which sells products such as furniture to the federal government, to compete with the private sector, and last fall the House overwhelmingly passed a bill that would mandate broader reforms. The measure would require FPI to compete for its contracts with federal agencies and to fulfill orders in a timely manner. It also would authorize money for inmate rehabilitation and training to address concerns that changes in FPI’s procedures could force prisoner layoffs and thus put a greater strain on prison security. The competing Senate bill, which focuses on forcing FPI to compete for contracts, is expected to move through the Governmental Affairs Committee early this spring. One of the panel’s subcommittees held a hearing on the bill on Wednesday. FPI has also been embroiled in a legal dispute with the Coalition for Government Procurement.

“The current management of FPI is full of deceptive, ineffective people,” said Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., a leading FPI critic. “The current management has shown no empathy in their business decisions for the impact they’ve had in the private sector.”