Penitentiary Products

By Gregory Cappis

Want a job making military uniforms? Well, it’s relatively easy to get hired. The only requirements are to be arrested and sent to federal prison.

State and federal prisons put inmates to work every day to make everything from furniture to bulletproof vests. The programs are self-sustaining and put money into the economy by purchasing raw goods. Activists argue that these programs exploit the inmates and hurt the economy.

“These men are voluntarily employed in meaningful work situations that aid in developing useable skills and positive work habits,” said Sharyn Elman, chief public information officer of the Illinois Department of Corrections. “We offer offenders the opportunity to gain marketable skills for their future so that they can become gainfully employed individuals once they re-enter society.”

Don Washington, founder of the Mayoral Tutorial, a website and series of public events dealing with social issues, does not agree. The comedian-turned-political-activist said prisoners make goods for cheap that corporations profit from, and this has a bad effect on the economy.

“Prisoners are working for less than minimum wage with no workers’ rights, and they compete directly with guys on the outside,” Washington said at the Heartland Cafe, 7000 N. Glenwood Ave., during a town hall-style event he hosted. “They are actually using prisoners to drive down the costs of things.”

Joe Gunja, CEO of Simco Correctional Consulting, said inmates working in these types of programs make between 30 cents and $2 an hour, and these are the most sought after jobs in prisons. There are normally long waiting lists for these jobs, according to Gunja.

The inmates placed in these jobs are the ones who never get into any trouble, because if they do, they will be pulled from the position, he added.

“Offenders who participate in [prison-based] industries must have no incidents of violent behavior while incarcerated,” Elman said.

There are a couple of differences between the industries in the state prisons and federal penitentiaries.

People serving life sentences in Illinois cannot be hired in the state’s industry system. In federal prisons, people serving life sentences can be hired to produce items ranging from military helmets to high-end office furniture.

Federal Prison Industries Inc., a governmet-owned corporation that employs offenders in correctional facilities under the Federal Bureau of Prisons, is only allowed to sell to government agencies.

“The reason for that was so they wouldn’t take sales away from your mom and pop operations,” said Gunja, who was previously a warden at three federal prisons.

Illinois Correctional Industries sells mostly to state agencies, municipalities and not-for-profit organizations, according to Elman.

The state and federal industries are similarly not allowed to profit from the business. All revenue gained is invested back into the prisons to pay employees, inmate workers and to keep the operations going, according to Gunja. No tax money or appropriated funds are spent on these industries.

The working prisoners not only make earnings, however meager they may be,they also gain valuable work experience that can help them find a job once they are released. In Illinois, for example, convicts are trained in the complete manufacturing process of making eyeglasses, according to Elman.

“Inmates [working in federal prisons] receive a minimum of 30 days training and up to three months,” Gunja said.

Inmates aren’t only working factory-style jobs. When Gunja was the regional director of federal prisons in California, a few prisons had call centers. Inmates were hired by outside agencies to give customer service over the phone.

“This guy offered to hire every one of our inmates when they got out at different locations around the U.S.,” Gunja said.

The little money the prisoners do make from these jobs often ends up back in the hands of the government or with the victims of their crimes.

“Eighty percent of the people who get convicted have to pay a fine,” Gunja said. “[If inmates owe money for fines], they have to pay 25 percent of what they make back into these funds, and it goes back to the government and back to the victims if there are victims.”