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Lawmakers Seek to End Business Boom Behind Bars

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Lawmakers Seek to End Business Boom Behind Bars

Business

Lawmakers Seek to End Business Boom Behind Bars

Lawmakers Seek to End Business Boom Behind Bars

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/4505313/4510580" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

A prisoner at work at the mattress and upholstery factory housed at the State Correctional Institution in Dallas, Penn. Laura Sullivan, NPR hide caption

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Laura Sullivan, NPR

Thousands of prisoners are hard at work on manufacturing lines, making everything from shoes to furniture — and earning millions in profits for federal prisons.

Web Extra

Customer Service with a Real Record: A generation ago, prisoners just made license plates. Now they've entered the service sector, answering phones at customer call centers run out federal prisons — an expansion that's angered private businesses.

Read Laura Sullivan's report:

But many lawmakers and private manufacturers want to put a stop to these behind-bars industries, which they say are stealing jobs from American workers.

Leading the charge on Capitol Hill is Michigan Rep. Peter Hoekstra. Last year, he abolished a federal rule that forced government agencies to buy goods and products from prisons first. Now he wants to take prisoners out of the commercial factory business all together. He says prisoners should work only for non-profits and prison upkeep.

"Our workers are competing against China, they're competing against South Korea, Japan," Hoekstra says. "The last thing they need to be doing is competing against American workers who are in jail."

But others argue that prison work is a key element of rehabilitation for inmates. "If you don't do something to try to change the behavior, then it's like a big revolving door," says Miles Appleton, a foreman at a factory run out of the State Correctional Institution in Dallas, Penn. "When they get back outside, the person that's complaining about them doing work is maybe the one assaulted by one of these fellas."