BLYTHE, Calif. - Most of the 3,600 inmates at Chuckawalla Valley State Prison pass the time playing basketball, lifting weights and working as office clerks, landscapers or cafeteria helpers, jobs that pay no more than 18 cents an hour.
But 17 inmates at this medium-security prison about 100 miles east of Palm Springs earn the minimum wage of $5.75 an hour at a modular-furniture manufacturing plant that began operating behind these walls a few months ago.
Workers use their weekly pay checks of $201.25 to help support their families, defray living expenses and build nest eggs. Some expect to save several thousand dollars by the time they are released, a marked contrast to the meager $200 check most inmates receive when they leave.
The federal program allowing such prison enterprises was established in 1979, but in the last six years the number of inmate workers nationwide has more than doubled, to 2,600.
The reasons have more to do with a booming economy than a burgeoning prison population. Faced with a low unemployment rate, officials at manufacturing operations increasingly are looking to inmates to make up for workforce shortages.
Throughout the country, prison factories churn out a variety of products, including license plates, street signs, bluejeans, nightgowns, shoes and eyeglasses, for public agencies such as schools and hospitals. Inmates in South Carolina have been enlisted by their governor to build houses for low-income elderly people.
But unlike those operations, the Chuckawalla furniture factory is operated by a private business in the prison that sells its goods on the open market to such retailers as Office Max and Staples.
"Here, we have an abundance of labor," he said. "I am impressed with the quality of workers we're finding here."
In a noisy, 16,000-square-foot warehouse, 17 inmates in blue denim prison duds used various saws and machines to cut and glue wooden boards. At the end of the assembly line was a stack of particle boards, on which workers at a plant in Massachusetts would affix fabric and metal cabinets for the final product.
The Chuckawalla plant was established under the U.S. Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program, aimed at giving inmates skills they can use in the outside world to reduce the likelihood that they will get into trouble and wind up back behind bars. Then-U.S. Sen. Charles Percy of Illinois sponsored the legislature for the program in 1979.
About 35 legislatures, including those in Wisconsin, Florida and Washington, have passed laws extending the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program to their states. Inmates make everything from saddles to children's clothing to computer components, which ultimately make it to the shelves of retailers including Kmart and to such corporations as IBM. Illinois has not
extended the program.
Though comprehensive studies have yet to be done, experts say data compiled by several states involved in the program help to quantify its success. The general prison recidivism rate averages 60 percent, compared with 6 percent to 26 percent for inmates who participate in such private industry work programs, according to statistics compiled by various states using the program.
Prison officials like it because inmates in the programs work especially hard to stay out of trouble so they can keep their high-paying jobs. States like it because such inmates are required to pay taxes as well as contribute 20 percent of their salaries for room and board, 20 percent for victim-assistance programs and 20 percent for family support.
"We have collected about $1 million [from prisoners]," said Steve Kronzer, director of the Wisconsin Department of Correction's enterprises division. "The money for child support helps reduce welfare payments."
For years, said Kronzer, efforts to get the program approved in Wisconsin were thwarted by labor organizations such as the AFLCIO, which feared the inmates would take jobs from union workers. The union backed off when the state unemployment rate dropped to 4 percent, and the Wisconsin legislature passed the measure in 1993, Kronzer said. Officials who administer the programs say the union's fears were unfounded.
Built into the Prison Industry Enhancement law is the prohibition against companies shifting jobs away from the non-prison population, and the inmates must be paid the prevailing wage.
"There's a misconception that the program is a way for companies to get away with using cheap labor. The program protects competition and prevents exploitation," said Barbara Auerbach, a coordinator for the Prison Industry Enhancement, Certification Program.
"This is for companies that might consider whether it would make sense for them to do business in America or Taiwan," she added. "We argue it's cost effective for them to stay here."
California, with about 350 inmates working at 20 factories, has one of the most extensive programs in the nation. State officials are attempting to recruit more businesses to meet the burgeoning prison population, which has risen to 160,000 from 19,000 in 1977.
U.S. Technologies is at the forefront of the movement, with prison facilities in McFarland and Blythe, Calif., as well as in Draper, Utah, and Lockhart, Texas.
A goal is to be able to hire some of the inmate workers upon their release from prison.
"I hired a man who had been in the prison programs," said Larry Little, president of TMD, a U.S. Technologies- owned company in Georgetown, Texas, that makes circuit boards.
"He's working out great. He stepped right in with minimal training," Little said.