In 1990, California voters put convicts to work for private companies behind prison walls. Businesses were granted cheap rent and other perks, while inmate workers earned real-world wages and shared them with victims, says the Los Angeles Times. the program took off and became a national model. Its director traveled the country touting it, and graduates seldom returned to prison. As Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger seeks to better prepare inmates for release, the program is a shambles.
Once dubbed the future of corrections and expected to employ thousands of felons, the program has withered to less than half its size several years ago. With fewer than 150 of California’s 163,000 prisoners taking part, it is dwarfed by similar ventures in much smaller states. Corrections department officials blame the program’s woes on a slowing economy, a dearth of industrial space on prison grounds, and competition from more business-friendly states, especially those with lower minimum wages. The program also has suffered from neglect by state officials. “It was as far on the back burner as it could possibly be,” said former Assistant Corrections Director Noreen Blonien, who ran it from 1992 through 2002. Recently, the program hit a new low when a judge in San Diego assumed its oversight and ordered an investigation into allegations that inmates were underpaid millions of dollars.