Using Convict Labor to Offset Budget Shortfalls

Purse made by convict labor in ArizonaTwo powerful economic problems bedeviling us now are state budget shortfalls and burgeoning prison populations. Therefore it should come as no surprise that states are looking to trim expenses by turning to convict labor. And that doesn't mean just making license plates any more.

As of 2009, there were 2.3 million people locked up in jails and prisons in the U.S., at an average cost per person in the neighborhood of $26,000. For years, prisoners have been used for the most menial of tasks, such as laundry and farm work, to help offset this cost.But the industry has evolved very far beyond that. Many states have professionalized their prison labor to offer much more complex products. California convicts can make you a full set of dentures, a set of prescription glasses, a pair of high-top boots and a firefighter jacket.

Arizona actually runs a prison outlet store, where shoppers can buy custom art, purses made out of license plates and t-shirts reading "Florence, Arizona, a gated community," (Florence, of course, being a prison.)

In light of the recession, state lawmakers are looking at the potential to expand these programs. Virginia just voted to allow inmates to maintain rest stops along its highways. Convicts in Louisiana helped detox the state's beaches of BP sludge. Prisoners in the Hillsborough County Jail in Florida are marketing their own home-made hot sauce, Jailhousefire. Inmates in North Carolina are actually building the expansion to their Bertie County Correctional Institution.

The move is also being considered at the federal level. According to the New York Times,Republican Senator John Ensign of Nevada has introduced a bill that would require federal low-risk convicts to work a 50-hour week.

Such money-saving moves are not without controversy, however. Some complain that provides unfair competition to private companies. Others believe it is exploitative to use prisoners in this way.

Given the enormous cost of maintaining the world's business prison system, however, it seems inevitable that the pressure to produce revenue will only increase.
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