Inmates in the Elkton, Ohio, federal prison strip down old computers, salvaging valuable bits of gold and platinum, Fortune magazine reports. Prisoners clad in protective suits hammer at monitor screens and cathode tubes, the smashed glass destined for sale to reprocessors. Computer recycling is difficult, labor-intensive work; Elkton gets business from government agencies and schools because it can compete with Third World wages. Other state and federal prisons have gone into business, making products for companies like Home Depot and Lowe’s.
Cash-strapped state governments are struggling to cover the annual cost of incarceration, which has swelled to $40 billion, and to find enough work to keep prisoners occupied. Led by Edwin Meese, former U.S. Attorney General now at the Heritage Foundation, and Morgan Reynolds, one of the first President Bush’s economic advisors, conservataives have lobbied for real prison employment by the private sector–not just make-work projects like stamping license plates or building courthouse furniture. Businesses get cheap, reliable workers; inmates receive valuable job training and earn more than they would in traditional prison jobs; and the government offsets the cost of incarceration and keeps jobs and tax dollars in the U.S.
The number of inmates employed by the private sector is still small: 10,000 working for about 250 companies. But that is up significantly from a mere handful ten years ago. Meese estimates that companies could easily employ ten to 20 times as many inmate workers.
While some companies have embraced prison labor, others are reluctant. Dell canceled a contract with Federal Prison Industries after an environmental group’s charge that the prison operation was a “poor example of worker health and safety.”