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Socks, Underwear and Muu Muus Too

By Kathleen Scalise, Public Affairs
Posted August 19, 1998

If you think prison inmates make only license plates, you don't know the half of it.

A recent report by Berkeley economist George Goldman shows that California prison factories and farms produce more than $150 million in direct sales annually in the state. Prison products range from silk-screened clothing made in Tehachapi to fine-ground optics from Vacaville.

The report is the first comprehensive study of the economic impact of the California Prison Industry Authority, the largest prison work program in any state. The organization employs about 7,000 inmates in 23 prisons, said report author Goldman, a cooperative extension economist in the Department of Agriculture and Resource Economics at Berkeley's College of Natural Resources.

Prison work programs in California are voluntary, and inmates line up for a chance to work, even though their wages average only 57 cents per hour. The pay scale is 30 to 95 cents per hour.

Goldman's study reveals a positive economic impact on the state from prison work programs and also indicates what would happen if such programs did not exist.

"If you wipe out the California Prison Industry Authority, you'd lose $62 million in personal income in the state," said Goldman. Additionally, 560 jobs would disappear, not counting those held by convicts and state civil service staff.

Goldman found prison labor healthy for the private sector. The goods produced by inmates use raw materials supplied by California's private sector. Major prison products include food, with annual sales of $33 million; fabrics, $32 million; paper and wood products, $30 million; and metal products, $22 million.

A main goal of prison work programs is to provide "a positive outlet to help inmates productively use their time and energies," said Frank Losco, spokesperson for the Prison Industry Authority. Another goal is to instill good work habits, including time management and appropriate job behavior.

Although the prison programs are self-supporting, "it's not trivial to set up one of these factories," said Goldman. "And the factories cannot be as efficient as the commercial sector, what with the extra costs of security, prison shutdowns and so forth."

In California, only government agencies can purchase prison products, unlike other states such as Nevada, where convicts make cars for retail sale, and Oregon, where jeans are produced. In fact, Oregon's jeans -- labeled "Prison Blues" -- proved so popular last year that prison factories couldn't keep up with demand.

In California, however, the prisons themselves are their own best customers. The California Department of Corrections buys about half of what the prisons make, ordering from a Prison Industry Authority catalog.

Prison goods and services include farm and dairy products, such as eggs, prunes and almonds; meat cutting; coffee roasting; manufacturing of furniture, shoes and clothing; dental and optical services; and much more. A knitting mill is run by the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo.

"I thought like everyone else, vaguely, that prisoners make license plates," said Goldman. "I didn't even know if they still did that. . . .I had no idea they made mattresses at San Quentin or still ran prison farms. They do make more than $10 million worth of license plates each year."

Compared to other California industries, prison production has about the same economic impact as book binding ($138 million), pulp mills ($133 million), chewing gum manufacturing ($142 million), or a single moderately successful Steven Spielberg film, said Goldman. That's small change compared to California's blockbuster industries such as agriculture, said Goldman, but "it's still a good thing and has a positive impact on the state."

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