by DCDave

A Better System

From the experience of Stroud and much of the foregoing an alternative to prison industries as a solution to the idleness problem and as a real re-molder of men begins to come into focus. It is an alternative which would not put the prison system at odds with honest men and women trying to make a living by providing goods and services to the federal government. It would not cause the agencies of the government to be provided with inferior merchandise at a premium price delivered in an untimely manner. It would not cause charges to be made that the prison system was exploiting slave labor nor suspicions to be aroused that national anti-crime policy, especially the "drug war" and the media hyping of the crime threat, has as its real primary objective the enhancement of the power and influence of the federal government "law enforcement" establishment. And it would curtail the financing for a large and growing government organization that essentially puts that organization beyond the control normally exercised over a government agency through the appropriation and budget process.

For the longer-term prisoners without prospects in the near future for having to cope with life on the outside, creative activities such as those of Stroud and his Leavenworth imitators would be encouraged and facilitated. Some illegal activities would certainly be attempted and would have to be regularly weeded out, but illegal activities already flourish in our prisons, and as things stand now, they are the dominant creative activity.

Q. Are illicit activities and inmate-on-inmate violence and intimidation adequately controlled?

A. No, nor can they ever be unless the staff partners involved are seen for what they are as contributors to the problem.
...corruption has also been an inherent feature of closed prisons, as inmates and staff both attempt to ameliorate the strains of living and working in the unpleasant prison atmosphere.

General education opportunities would be kept open for everyone and, by tapping inmate resources, would and could be easily increased, but specific job-related training would be only for prisoners near release, as would the opportunity to work in a trimmed-down prison industry system which would go out of business if it could not compete on a fair basis with private contractors. To replicate the private sector experience as much as possible and to obviate the "slave labor" charge, workers would have to be paid at least the minimum wage.

The argument has been made that the current bargain-basement wages are necessary because prison costs, primarily those for security, are so high. We have already seen that most ancillary prison production costs are not higher but are drastically lower, and with such a privileged work force with so much to lose, certainly security costs could be greatly reduced. There is also ample reason to question the claims of higher costs, even those for security, currently made by prison officials. Consider, once again, the self-serving motivation for making such claims. Particularly in those traditional industries in which UNICOR has decades of experience, there is virtually no way they could be so high as to counteract UNICOR's manifest cost advantages.

Concerning this question of cost disadvantages, I received a letter from a particularly astute inmate who, based upon what he had calculated to be an average of $.69 per hour wage (about right for UNICOR overall), and given the average number of workers, the daily output, and the price charged for that output, had estimated that for each one dollar's worth of product sold the UNICOR factory where he works incurs a labor expense of less than one cent (.87 cents to be exact). Nationally, the production worker cost of that item is 10.7 cents per dollar of final product. With real estate costs assumed by the taxpayer, no taxes, and no regulatory costs he couldn't see how UNICOR could not be rolling in dough. In fact, like many prisoners voluntarily working in the system because he received higher wages and better treatment by so doing, he exhibited a great deal of bitterness toward the organization, characterizing it as "slave labor" and reflecting the belief widely held among federal prisoners that UNICOR is owned privately by select government officials such as judges, prosecutors, and key legislators.49

We can see only two main disadvantages with a leaner, more focused alternative prison industries such as we envision. One would be the lost wages by those who would lose UNICOR jobs. But, first, it should be noted that if every one of them should lose their jobs we're talking about only roughly 18 per cent of all federal prisoners. For 18 per cent of federal prisoners to take a pay cut hardly constitutes a disaster for them or the system. We should not expect UNICOR to go completely out of business, however. With employment only for those near release and the wages much higher, many of those not currently employed would be bolstered by the prospect of getting the chance at these better jobs in due time. For the others, there would be creative activities which are, in a sense, their own reward, but there is no good reason why such endeavors should be prevented, where possible, from blossoming into profit-making businesses. No one benefits, neither society nor the prisoner, nor even the prison administrators, from breaking the prisoner's spirit and killing his hope.

The second big disadvantage to the alternative suggested, and the one which would doubtless cause it to be bitterly opposed, is that it would kill the BOP's automatic cash cow.50 Federal Prison Industries would necessarily shrink, and anyone who has ever studied organizations, especially government organizations, knows, they do not shrink voluntarily. Here we have hit upon the biggest problem with the prison industries system as conceived and executed by James V. Bennett. The organization, like Bennett himself, was made for bureaucratic survival, but in a number of ways the interests of the organization were, and are, in opposition to the clear public interest.

UNICOR Versus the Public

The first interest of every organization is to grow ever bigger and stronger. Private organizations are directed toward the public good by market competition. Government organizations, ideally, are directed toward the common good by those who appropriate money for them. UNICOR has no such control. It does have an unpaid board of directors who oversee an arrangement designed to prevent UNICOR from completely running rough shod over private competition by forcing the managers to get approval before they can expand into new industries, or increase their share of the market in a current industry, but the board does very little to prevent the organization from putting its own interests over the public's interests in a number of other ways, or even in that way, if the numerous competing-industry complaints are to be believed.

Summing up what we have learned, we have seen the following:

1) UNICOR employs inmates on what seems to be a seniority system with no specific discrimination against those who have no prospects of entering the American job market in the foreseeable future, either because they have long sentences or they are illegal aliens. This is exactly what one would expect of an organization putting its own money-making interests first. Stability in their work force is apparently more important to them than giving the work experience to someone who is not going to be with them very long.

2) Though UNICOR's managers complain of the pressure put on them by the drastic expansion of the prison population since 1980, their interests in having a stable work force, as well as a bigger, richer, more powerful organization are certainly served by the fact that expected length of stay for federal drug offenders tripled from 1985 to 1995 and drug offenders went from 22% in 1980 to 62% of all federal prisoners currently.51 So clearly are these developments in UNICOR's interests as an organization that our epigraphic anonymous letter writer can be excused for believing that the laws giving rise to them actually came at UNICOR's behest. The tacit chain of causation would presumably run from the Justice Department to their powerful media allies, who would exaggerate the crime threat, to the legislators who would get elected by pandering to the fears thus generated.

3) We have seen a stubborn concentration in low-skill, hand-assembly industries which will yield the highest profit to UNICOR because the very low wages they pay give them a greater advantage in those industries. It may be argued that this strategy also permits UNICOR to put more hands to work, but it is at a cost of providing the prisoners with unusable work experience.

4) We have seen the charge made that UNICOR, particularly in furniture operations, often does very little actual work on the furniture in the prisons, simply doing final assembly of kits manufactured elsewhere, instead. Actually, the way the law is written there is no restriction on UNICOR simply affixing its own label to products manufactured by others and passing them on to a government agency as a product of UNICOR. There is no minimum value-added requirement for a product to be labeled as made by UNICOR as there is for a product to be labeled, say, as made in Mexico. The advantage to the actual private manufacturer in the arrangement is that he gets his product sold to a federal government agency, using the mandatory purchase requirement, when he otherwise might not be competitive. The advantage to UNICOR is that it gets to increase its bottom line without taking any risk or, actually, without doing anything at all.

It would be frankly amazing if UNICOR, behaving as organizations do, putting the interests of the organization first, didn't do this sort of thing. They could always rationalize it by saying that it helped give them the resources to expand production in areas that actually did employ inmates. Like so much else of what UNICOR does, though, it comes at a hidden expense to the taxpayer.

5) We have seen the charge made that UNICOR exploits its privileged position as a corporation owned by the nation's top law enforcement body by alternatively courting and bullying purchasing officials in the government agencies that are its customers in ways that would be illegal were they to be done by a private company. One may say that these are merely unproven charges, but we know that UNICOR is able to do a number of other things that would be illegal if done by private companies such as pay far less than the minimum wage and ignore the tax and social security laws. Why should we not expect its managers, in furtherance of the interests of the organization, not only to do things that are illegal for others but not for them, but also to do things that are illegal for them as well? Who's to prosecute, after all, the Justice Department? Is this arrangement not a veritable blueprint for corruption?

6) Not only is UNICOR not subject to much legal control, it is also subject to virtually no budgetary or management control. As a typical self-serving organization, while claiming to "featherbed like crazy" in order to put as many inmates to work as possible, it apparently does its most egregious featherbedding with its civilian workforce in accordance with the axioms of C. Northcote Parkinson that (1) "An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals" and (2) "Officials make work for each other," and the observation of Anthony Downs that "bureaus inherently seek to expand."52 UNICOR even has a better excuse for wastefulness than most bureaus and certainly fewer restraints on doing so. Too high a profit-to-sales ratio would attract adverse attention and give ammunition to those who would take away some of its advantages. But the advantages are so great that a high profit/sales ratio is virtually unavoidable. A convenient way to soak up the embarrassment of riches is by doing what comes ever so naturally for an organization, expanding managers and supervisors. Thus we see that 22 cents of every dollar go for civilian payroll versus 8 cents of every dollar for inmate payroll and, since 1991, total wages and salaries at UNICOR have gone up by 47% in real terms while sales have increased by only 15% and inmate employment has increased by 19%.53

Compounding the unaccountability problem, UNICOR is quite secretive and uncooperative with information gatherers. "Part of the problem in responding to calls for the expansion of the prison network is the lack of access to important official data. More than any other public organization, prisons have operated behind closed doors' making it impossible to cogently address questionable claims."54 Requests for time-series information on civilian employment at UNICOR were rebuffed.55

7) We have seen how the Bureau of Prisons, under the guise of abandonment of the failed "medical" or "treatment" model, has made alternatives to UNICOR work, including education and training, ever skimpier in recent years. In actuality, this technique of funneling prisoners into UNICOR by getting rid of the alternatives is nothing new. We saw how the way was first paved for large scale prison industries by the shutting down of crafts and businesses of the type engaged in by Robert Stroud. Neither the interests of keeping an orderly prison nor of preparing inmates for life after prison are served by this policy, but the bottom-line interests of the organization are.

8) We have seen UNICOR cling tenaciously to the current arrangement with its captive government market even though it is not giving its workers the real, free-market type experience of producing quality products that satisfy customers. Done, ostensibly in the interests of the inmate and society, once again, it is most obviously in the interests of the organization and in conflict with the basic interests of the other two.

9) And we have seen what appears to be the virtual abandonment of any attempt to smooth the transition to freedom by job placement or letters of recommendation for newly released prisoners.

The Deceptive PREP Study

Nevertheless, with all the numerous ways listed above that the UNICOR-centered federal prison experience has become divorced from rehabilitation or preparation for the free-world workplace, UNICOR claims to have found, according to the title of a study done by two of its researchers, that "Links UNICOR Work Experience With Successful Post-Release Outcome."56 It has figured prominently in UNICOR's defenses before Congress, and it is referred to with great enthusiasm in the forward by Attorney General Janet Reno to the 1996 Federal Prison Industries Annual Report.

In this instance, the California State Auditor's report is of no help as a check on the work of the Bureau of Prisons. In fact, when the California report preparers asked for any evidence that their prison industries program had any positive post-prison effect, they were shunted off to the so-called "PREP" (Post Release Employment Project) study, which they accept at face value even though they note that an objective university study of the New York state prison industry program in 1988 found essentially no difference in the recidivism rate of those who had worked at a prison industries job and those who hadn't.57 They should have examined the PREP study more closely. The most revealing outcome they would have discovered is, as we have found from other sources, that federal prison inmates get very little vocational training, but such as it is, it, more than the UNICOR experience, probably had the most to do with the "finding" of post-release success.

Starting in 1983, the UNICOR researchers began tracking two groups of recently-released prisoners matched by criminal profile and general background. They had a "study group" of 2,013 individuals and a "comparison group" of 2,855 individuals (They talk of data collection on more than 7,000 former inmates, but apparently more than 2,132 were not suitable for comparison purposes.). The former were ostensibly the UNICOR alumni, but not exactly. Here is the key passage in the study:

The study group is composed primarily of inmates with UNICOR work experience--57 percent had exclusively UNICOR work experience, while 19 percent had a combination of work experience and vocational training or apprenticeship training. The remaining 24 percent were involved in some combination of vocational or apprenticeship training. 58

The inclusion of the latter 24 percent in a study touted as linking "UNICOR Work Experience With Successful Post Release Outcome" thoroughly undermines the study. UNICOR experience is one thing, vocational and apprenticeship training, as we emphasize in this paper, are something else entirely. Even including the 19 percent who had both the UNICOR experience and the training introduces some bias. When fully 43 percent of the study group had such training versus a comparison group who presumably had none, that factor alone could easily, and probably did, account for a good deal of the successful post-release outcome.

Some other points need to be made. That the conductors of the study were able to isolate a group of UNICOR workers, three quarters of whom (.57/.57+.19 = .75) had no real job training at all, shows how menial and low-skilled most UNICOR jobs are. Reading between the lines further reveals that only 14% of the non-UNICOR prisoners and 18% of all the prisoners, comparison group and study group together, received any vocational training at all. That there would be such a generally low level of vocational training for all prisoners bespeaks a prison administration that has, indeed, thrown in the towel when it comes to rehabilitation.

But wait, it's worse, perhaps much worse. We can deduce that by examining their observations on recidivism:

At the 12-month time period, 10.1 percent of comparison offenders had been revoked (sent back to prison), while only 6.6 percent of study offenders had been revoked. In other recidivism studies conducted by the Bureau, about 20 percent of released inmates were revoked or rearrested within a year of their release. In 1980, the percentage was 19.4, in 1982, 23.9, and in 1987, 19.2.59

What this tells us first is that there was not very much difference between the study group and comparison group in terms of recidivism when one considers how heavily the deck had been stacked in favor of the study group. But it also tells us that the requirement to find a comparison group that matched the study group by criminal profile and general background meant that the whole lot of them were rather an elite group as prisoners go, and of this elite group only 18% received any vocational or apprenticeship training at all. For the prisoner population overall, the percentage would have to be substantially lower.

Even without stacking the deck in their favor, the former UNICOR workers, though equal on paper in terms of criminal, educational, and employment histories to the comparison group, would still have been likely to have had better prospects upon leaving prison. Remember that the organization, if it is not the rare exception, looks after itself first. For the sake of its smooth functioning UNICOR would want the most tractable workers. The prisoners, for their part, want to be UNICOR workers because of the pay and the privileges. UNICOR, in essence, can and does skim off the cream of the prison crop who, for that reason alone, ought to do a lot better upon release than any other ex-prisoner group to which they might be compared.

And did they do a lot better in terms of employment? After 12 months 71.7% of the study group versus 63.1% of the comparison group was employed. Surely, that is no more superior results than one would expect even without the study group's added bias of those with vocational training and apprenticeships being included.60

The interesting thing is that Director Schwalb and Attorney General Reno (or whoever prepares their written material for them) have shown that they are aware of the PREP Study shortcomings and how its actual findings belie its title page, but other UNICOR advocates like Rep. Thomas Petri of Wisconsin clearly are not:

Schwalb: The study recently conducted on the impact of Prison Industries following 7,000 inmates over a long period of time, as long as 12 years, indicates that inmates who are involved in vocational training programs and Prison Industries' work have a substantially greater likelihood of being successfully employed upon release, earning higher wages and remaining crime free.(emphasis added)61

Reno: The PREP study is a longitudinal research study conducted by the Bureau to monitor and evaluate the effects of prison vocational training and the FPI work experience on the behavior of ex-offenders when they are released back into the community.(emphasis added)62

Petri: A 1991 Post Release Employment Study has shown that the inmate worker is less likely to recidivate upon release than the non-employed inmate which ultimately results in cost savings to the American taxpayer.63

What's to be Done?

What can we say, in the final analysis, about this flawed, little-known, but ever-expanding industrial giant known as UNICOR? For one thing, it is probably unwise to address the UNICOR question without coming to grips with the whole matter of our imprisonment binge. When the average person thinks of prison he conjures up the vision of one of those vicious murderers, carjackers, or armed robbers whose crimes make the newspapers or the evening news. But, in point of fact, only 2.78% of federal prisoners are there for violent offenses according to the most recent statistics.64 The prison population, especially the federal prison population, is not what we think it is. At this point, the words of the lawyer Benjamin Dreyfus, recorded long before the recent run-up in the number of people behind bars, are in order:

I had a later opportunity to quote that (80% don't belong in prison) figure to Carl G. Hocker, then captain in charge of San Quentin. He is ...known throughout the system as a stern disciplinarian and a tight custody man. I expected him to denounce the idea that anybody who was in prison did not belong there, and probably to advocate a healthy increase in prison population. To my surprise, Warden Hocker told me that he thought the figure was too low, and that in his opinion 90 percent of the people in prison do not belong there. 65

Given, then, the makeup of the prison population and the fact that UNICOR is able to skim the cream of the crop for its laborers, one might seriously question whether, even in its rehabilitation role, the organization is not doing a good deal more harm than good. When one considers further its unmeasured but substantial cost to taxpayers, its hindrance to military readiness, its undermining of free business and labor, and simply its raw, unchecked power, a strong case can be made for scrapping the whole thing.

At the very least, our proposal for a trimmed-down UNICOR competing for customers and providing work experience for those near release should be seriously considered. Just to get started on reform, the Congress might also take a long look at what California has done. Because UNICOR has apparently never been subjected to the kind of objective, in-depth analysis by any government bird-dog agency that California's prison industries recently was by its Bureau of State Audits, that agency's report is currently the best source of ameliorative suggestions:

Begin to develop and implement penal program aspects of the PIA. Both the CDC and the PIA should immediately begin to more fully integrate the PIA penal program with the CDC mission. Both organizations then should measure and report resulting programmatic benefits of the PIA. 66

It is with this purpose in mind, of course, that we propose the differential treatment toward inmates soon to be released and those without immediate prospects for release and the elimination of the mandatory purchase requirement by government agencies. We still think that would be the best way to integrate the FPI penal program with the BOP mission, but short of that the California auditors make other recommendations worthy of debate:

Undertake a systematic investigation of PIA inmate participation in terms of both correctional outcomes and effectiveness of the PIA process..) 

PIA inmate participation should be incorporated as a variable in the CDC's information system covering inmates under custody and inmates released. Information should be assessed routinely on the comparative experience of PIA participants and nonparticipants. In addition to industry participation indicators, more specific information on which PIA factory the inmate worked and type of job held, would enable the CDC to conduct more refined analyses of the effect of PIA participation. It may be that employment in certain factories or industries has more beneficial effects in terms of post-release employment and recidivism than others. These kind of data would help enable the PIA to make decisions about the establishment of new industry operations.(or, as more often should be the case, the closing down of old ones. ed67

With recommendations such as these the California auditors clearly have in mind something quite different from tracking designed to be used to prove to the world how good they are, as is the case with the PREP study, but tracking to help the prison industries perform better their professed job-training role. The likely problem with this approach is that it quickly runs head on into the other missions of keeping the maximum number of prisoners busy and operating in a "self-supporting" manner. They would soon discover what one can already deduce from the known facts, that very little of what prisoners do in existing prison industries enhances future job prospects and if this is to be the primary measure of their worth, most should be closed down.

Other recommendations are also tantalizing:

Survey at least once per year any customer that purchases more than $100,000 of goods or services from the PIA during the year and determine its satisfaction with the PIA's cost, quality, and cycle time. Responses to individual customer satisfaction surveys should be provided to the branch and factory managers of the products purchased by the customer. Each year, the PIA then should summarize results of all such surveys and provide the findings and conclusions to all employees.68

What this recommendation reflects is that the PIA currently doesn't care all that much about customer satisfaction because it doesn't have to. One can say the same thing for FPI. It is the natural result of the mandatory purchase provision. Such an exercise conducted by the prison industries authority might make them behave a bit more like a customer-satisfying private company, but having it done by an outside authority like the General Accounting Office would be more effective, and simply getting rid of the mandatory purchasing requirement would be the most effective of all.

Determine whether the programmatic benefits of the PIA justify the subsidies provided by the general fund.

Require an annual independent compliance audit as part of the annual financial audit process. The scope of this audit is to provide reasonable assurance that the PIA is complying with statutes, including any adopted by the Legislature as a result of this performance review. The compliance audit would determine that: (1) the PIA's cost accounting system is effective at measuring the full costs of production and overhead, (2) the PIA is pricing all products at full costs, and (3) the PIA has an adequate system in place to provide reasonable assurances that PIA prices are at or below market prices. This annual audit also should explicitly recognize and document any annual economic subsidies that the PIA receives. (emphasis added)69

Here we go right to the heart of the issue. What we are dealing with in the case of prison industries is essentially an out of control entity. FPI's enabling legislation called for periodic audits by the Comptroller General (the head of the General Accounting Office), but the job has been farmed out to private accounting firms since 1979, the period of FPI's greatest growth, and they are nothing like the independent going-over that the California auditor's office envisions. The fact is that no one truly evaluates UNICOR, and one may question whether anyone ever has. On this point, our anonymous letter writer was perfectly accurate, "Prison administrators have received a hands-off' approach by the government." Furthermore, what the California auditor says about their prison industries board of directors would seem to apply equally as well to the UNICOR board: "The Prison Industry Board is not independent, provides insufficient input to PIA policy, and does not effectively monitor PIA operations."70

A Failed Social Policy

Certainly a serious first start in addressing the shortcomings of UNICOR would be to take some of these California Auditor's recommendations to heart, as well as to consider seriously our own reforming recommendations. But in doing so, would we not be doing little more than treating the symptoms of what is clearly a serious societal illness? Something is badly wrong when we continue to incarcerate people at an increasing rate and the current rate is already 5 to 8 times as high as that of most industrialized nations.71 The treadmill-like drug war we persist in waging is a very large part of the problem, and we have seen what that has meant for the makeup of the federal prison population. Who can blame our initial letter writer for suspecting that such an obvious wrongheaded policy from the perspective of the greater good of society must be done for some powerful people's benefit? Surely there must be more behind it than the desire to sell newspapers and TV advertising time with crime scares, and getting politicians elected. A caller with a music-industry background, noting the crime-encouraging, destructive nature of "gangsta" rap music, yet the apparent ease with which some of the worst groups are able to get major record company contracts, even wondered aloud if there might not be some grand scheme afoot to control the population by dividing it. "Isn't the primary effect of such music, and the videos which accompany it, to make white people afraid of black people?" he asked.

Whatever the truth behind such suspicions, one can see at least one connection between some of our larger social failings and the failings of the federal prison system that we have observed. It is the failure of the centralizing, bureaucratic model--the first cousin of the Soviet totalitarian model--in human affairs. In this model there is no room for the individual, and the state planners have a free reign. James V. Bennett devised his government corporation of UNICOR at a time when many of this country's leading intellectual lights admired what was going on in fascist Italy and the Soviet Union. His brainchild, with it's mixture of contradictory goals and its legislated monopoly, resembles nothing so much as one of those state monopolies in the failed Soviet Union. While they have collapsed, UNICOR keeps growing (the projected federal prison population at the current rate of growth is 136,980 in the year 2000).72 And it is constantly being fed by the products of another massive bureaucracy, the government school monopoly, that has become vastly more centralized and divorced from parents and community over the past half century. Failed first by the large, impersonal public school bureaucracy, many of our young people follow the path that seems to be the only one left to them, and they set themselves up to be failed once again by the large, impersonal federal prison bureaucracy. But, perhaps, from a certain chilling perspective, this is really no failure at all.

The hallmark of those released to society as certified model prisoners by the Federal Bureau of Prisons was their willingness to be malleable, their "habit-forming" obedience in their every thought and action. None are inclined to pursue, or desire to attain the high goals accomplished by Robert Stroud, a man condemned to die in prison as an "incorrigible." They avoid the burden of thinking individuals. They are ideal subjects for a totalitarian state.

Routinely performing an established rote task in a prison factory year after year serves only to blunt a man's natural inclination to think. This was the real purpose in setting up the Prison Industries. When men are forced to work under the duress of their own imprisonment, regardless of the high-sounding rationale offered in its defense, such practices constitute slave labor, the worst possible malignancy to be inflicted upon a nation which proclaims human freedom its most cherished inheritance.73

David Martin
August 9, 1997

The Bird The Bird Columns DCDave's Homepage DCDave's Column DCDave's Column 1
newsgroup: alt.thebird email: dcdave1@cox.net
search for: