NEWS RELEASE, 06/25/98
California prison factories generate $150 million
in sales each year, new UC Berkeley report finds
By Kathleen Scalise, Public Affairs
BERKELEY -- If you think prison inmates only make license plates, you're behind the times.
A report released this month by an economist at the University of California, Berkeley found California prison factories and farms are responsible for over $150 million in direct sales annually in the state. Prison products today range from silk-screened clothing in Tehachapi to fine-ground optics in 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 from Del Norte to San Diego County, said report author George Goldman, a cooperative extension economist in the Department of Agriculture and Resource Economics at the UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources.
Prison work programs in California are voluntary, and inmates line up for a chance to work, even though they are paid on average only 57 cents per hour. The pay scale ranges from 30 cents to 95 cents per hour.
Goldman's study shows a positive economic impact on the state from prison work programs and also indicates what would happen if they 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 is also healthy for the private sector. Prison programs produce goods that in many cases would otherwise come from outside the state while employing the private sector to supply raw materials. Biggest prison products are food, with $33 million in sales annually; 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 appropriate job behavior and time management.
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 are allowed to 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 purchases about half of what the prisons make, choosing from a Prison Industry Authority catalog.
Goldman has done economic surveys for many industries, but this is the first time he has studied prison work programs in depth, and even he was surprised at the breadth of items produced.
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, including a knitting mill 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 weighs in with 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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