Statement to US House
by DCDave

Here is my written testimony to Congress delivered to a hearing on "Prison Industries Programs: Effects on Inmates, Law-Abiding Workers, and Business." Other testimony before the committee, along with mine, will soon be on the home page of the full Committee on Education and the Workforce. If interested you should bookmark it now.

Statement of Gary D. Martin, Ph. D.

Before the Subcommittee on Oversight
and Investigation Committee on Education and the Workforce
U.S. House of Representatives

August 5, 1998

Mr. Chairman, distinguished members of the committee, I appreciate this opportunity to present the highlights of my study entitled "Federal Prison Industries: Occupational Training or Slave Labor?" that I did with the support of the Fund for Constitutional Government. I will present only a part of the statement, but with your permission, I would like to place the entire statement and the study in the record.

It is a rare person who does not like the concept of prison industries. As long as we have all those prisoners, the reasoning goes, we ought to put them to work doing something productive. By doing productive labor the prisoners can help pay some of the expense of their incarceration, the inmates can possibly be rehabilitated by learning valuable skills, and the "devil's workshop" of idle hands can be avoided by keeping inmates busy, and the jailer's thankless job can thus be made easier.

That, at least, is the concept, and it is reflected to a degree in the high-minded mission statement of the 64-year-old organization also known as UNICOR:

"It is the mission of Federal Prison Industries to employ and provide skills training to the greatest practicable number of inmates in Federal correctional facilities necessary to ensure the safe and secure operation of such institutions, and in doing so, to produce market priced, quality goods in a self-sustaining manner that minimizes potential impact on private business and labor."


The careful reader will notice right off the bat that one of the good things he might have thought we would get out Federal Prison Industries is not there. FPI is expected to pay for itself, and nothing more. In fact, by law, any profits must go back into the operation of UNICOR (as they have come to call it). That's what they mean by "self-sustaining."

But, in fact, UNICOR is not self-sustaining. It is costly in one large, fairly easily-measurable way and in another large, not so easily measurable way. On the first point, the 1996 UNICOR Annual Report tells us that the Bureau of Prisons budgeted $25.9 million for the subsequent three years for building new buildings and making improvements to old ones. That is taxpayer money that would not have to be spent if there were no UNICOR. The Bureau of Prisons--which is to say, the taxpayer--also foots the bill for UNICOR's utilities of power and water.

Probably the larger cost to the taxpayer is in the extra expense to government agencies for all the things they are forced by law to buy from UNICOR that they could get more cheaply from the private sector. And that is not their only extra expense. Insofar as the products are inferior in quality, they will have to be replaced more quickly. And since time is money, the notorious UNICOR practice of lateness in delivery is also costly. Considering the fact that some 60% of UNICOR's sales go to the Defense Department, this lateness in delivery and inferior quality could, in time of national emergency, be costly in more than just money. It could be costly in lives and in national security.

This second large extra expense is of greater import for a couple of reasons. Being so hard--actually impossible--to measure, it cannot be controlled and there is thus no real limit on its growth. With a source of revenue from thousands of different sources, the UNICOR managers are thereby made uniquely unaccountable. A private seller is held to account by his customer and competition. Not so the managers of UNICOR. All the mismanagement of which they might be guilty can simply be visited upon their customers, who have no choice but to buy. An agency head squandering appropriated funds can be held to account--at least in theory--by executive branch administrators and Congressional appropriators. But to the extent that UNICOR is supposed to be "self-sustaining," it is free of such scrutiny.

Before leaving this point about UNICOR's unique freedom from control, we can't help but note that being owned by the U.S. Justice Department, the highest law enforcement body in the land, can't help but impart an enviable freedom of another kind to UNICOR'S managers. I am reminded of the old Russian proverb that Ronald Reagan was fond of repeating with respect to arms control, "Trust, but verify." Here we might paraphrase it and say "Trust, but don't tempt." Maybe we would like to think that we are just better people than those in, say, Indonesia or the Philippines, but bad arrangements have a way of bringing out the worst in people. To expect people not to engage in what one might call an American version of Indonesian "crony capitalism" with things like cozy deals with suppliers would seem to me to be expecting a bit too much. Human beings are not that different from one another the world over. If UNICOR managers should bend the rules to the point of illegality, who's to prosecute? As UNICOR grows past the half billion dollar mark in annual sales, the size of the temptation to cheat grows with it.


Other witnesses are better versed on this subject than I. All I can say is that, if they were, the officials at Federal Prison Industries would not need the mandatory purchase provision.


Over and over the picture is conjured up of federal prisons as sputtering powder kegs in the absence of UNICOR. It is the most important, practically the only, tool, we are told, that prison officials have to control the inmates and to combat the old bugaboo of prisoner idleness. To be sure the Bureau of Prisons has every incentive for it to be so, or to make it seem so to those who make the rules for them. They want the best prisoners for UNICOR workers. The bottom line depends on it. A private employer must offer positive incentives to get them. UNICOR could do that, too, but since the prison has complete control of the lives of their entire potential work force, it is much cheaper simply to make the alternative to UNICOR work thoroughly unpleasant and unrewarding. Even if the prison has perfectly good alternatives to UNICOR for prisoner management and control, it is best not to let on to the Congress that it does.

Even UNICOR founder, James V. Bennett, said that prison riots--the worst case of out-of-line prisoners--result from bad food, poor management, and brutality. I believe they result from a powerful sense of outrage and aggrievement, tinged with desperation, but whatever the case, the presence or absence of a UNICOR plant on the premises is of small consequence. Note, too, that by the most recent count, only 18.5% of all federal prisoners worked for UNICOR, and in the four largest state prison systems, only a mere 5.4% worked in prison industries. It certainly would appear that, as a general rule in America, prison industries are not essential for prisoner control.


UNICOR officials often argue that in spite of what would appear to be their many cost advantages they remain high-cost producers and consequently need the mandatory purchasing provision because they have to "featherbed like crazy" just to put idle hands to work. The idleness-combating function is thus frankly stated to be in conflict not just with the need to operate efficiently so as to be self-supporting, but between the lines it can be seen as in conflict with preparation for work outside. UNICOR has a built-in excuse not to modernize with the latest labor-saving techniques or to make products that require little labor for their manufacture. In other words, it has little incentive to provide the sort of work experience that is transferable to the U.S. industrial sector as it exists in the 1990s. More and more prison officials concede the point and agree that they are not really imparting useful skills, only what they call a useful attitude toward regular work.

The efficiency imperative and the order-and-control imperative are at odds with job training and preparation for life outside in another way, as well. UNICOR managers have every reason to exhibit a preference for workers with no immediate prospects for release. Using prisoners stuck with one of those outrageiously long new mandatory minimum drug sentences, that is, prisoners who are a long time away from their release date, cuts down on worker turnover. Low worker turnover is better for smooth factory operation and efficiency. The idleness-combating mission would also mandate the use of prisoners who are as far away from their release date as can be found. A worker near his or her release date is least likely to cause trouble, but fulfilling the mission of preparing prisoners for when they are released says UNICOR management should use mainly prisoners who are near release.

Perhaps these many ways in which prison industries are at odds with preparation for work outside explains why an objective university study of the post-release experience of New York state prisoners found no difference in the recidivism rate of those who had had prison industries experience and those who had not, in spite of the fact that one would expect the "cream-of-the-crop" effect alone to have given the prison-industry alumni an advantage. But more recently we have an in-house study (called PREP for Post-Release Employment Project) by a couple of Bureau of Prisons economists which purports to show that the recidivism rate is lower for UNICOR alumni than for their cohorts with a similar offense profile.

In my paper for the Fund for Constitutional Government, finished about this time last year, I observed that the study was thoroughly tainted by the inclusion with the UNICOR group prisoners who had received vocational training or apprenticeship training. A substantial percentage of those included with the UNICOR-alumni group only had the vocational training or apprenticeships and had never even worked for UNICOR. The comparison group, on the other hand had neither worked for UNICOR nor had any vocational training or apprenticeship. Now I find that in a journal article based on the PREP study published last year, the two economists have separated out the UNICOR-only from the vocational or apprenticeship-only, and the UNICOR-only still fare better than the unfortunate comparison group. However, the important new revelation is that, although the UNICOR-only prisoners were found to have been 24% less likely to return to prison than the control group, those who had experienced only vocational training or apprenticeships were 33% less likely to recidivate, a finding that the authors, as you would expect, do not tout in their introduction or their conclusion.

I am not at all surprised at this new finding. My sources were unanimous that vocational training in prison is much more important to the prisoner's future than is the UNICOR experience. I had already deduced from the original PREP study data, with no help from the authors, that there is a scandalously low level of vocational training in the federal prisons, a finding that confirmed what I was told in a prisoner survey and from my reading on the subject. Now the Bureau of Prisons has inadvertently revealed to us with its own study that, if they really care about the prisoner's future once he or she leaves prison, there is no excuse for their great preference for prison industries over vocational training.

David Martin

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