By Richard Gilliam
Recently, an inmate at California Men’s Colony received two disciplinary write-ups in less than thirty days: the first for refusing to attend school, the second for possession of a small amount of tobacco. Because he did not remain disciplinary free for at least 90 days, 30 days will be added to his release date. But who is really being punished? At a cost of approximately $50,000 a year to house and maintain each prisoner, these two infractions will cost the taxpayers an additional $4,000.
California’s penal code contains a hodgepodge of sentencing schemes. A convicted offender can find himself serving anywhere from 35 to 85 percent of his sentence. These reductions are presumptive and only change due to rules violations (like the ones described above). The reality is that there is little incentive not to break the rules. Inmates are granted few privileges or perks, the loss of which might give rise to second thoughts before incurring infractions.
But how best to implement a policy of privilege and prohibition? The efficient use of inmates as a resource is largely un-utilized. A small number of inmates in California are employed in vocational support services such as plumbing, electrical, and building maintenance jobs which helps keep the costs of repairs lower. Inmates are also employed in prison industries: manufacturing items such as mattresses and clothing for inmates, as well as furniture for state agencies and universities. But these programs pay little or nothing and employ only a small fraction of the prison population.
This area could be greatly expanded to benefit both prisoners and taxpayers. The federal prison system utilizes inmates labor to manufacture electronics for military applications and some state lease prison labor to private companies, performing sales and customer service duties via telephone and computer. In this era of tighter state and municipal budgets prisoners could fill services cut due to diminishing finances. Inmates could be used to manufacture items such as park ranger uniforms, state vehicle interiors, modular office cubicles for state offices, and lighting fixtures for state buildings. The applications and potential are vast. And for their labor, inmates could be paid a decent wage. At present, an inmates can make up to a dollar an hour, but most prison jobs pay much less. There are some joint venture programs at various institutions, utilizing prisoners for more jobs they could be paid a fair wage for–up to minimum wage–then be required to pay a portion of that for room and board, thereby alleviating some of the burden from taxpayers, while paying taxes on earnings themselves.
A prisoner with a valued job is less likely to endanger losing it by violating the rules, and those required to attend educational classes would understand that refusing to complete such a program will result in a longer wait for desired employment. The concept of Stick and Carrot doesn’t work if you only apply the stick, and the taxpayers should no longer have to pay for inefficient management when every dollar counts.
Richard Gilliam is a writer currently serving time in a California prison.