Inmates' Jobs, From Call Centers To Paint Mixing Many people understand inmates have jobs, but don't realize the variety of products and services they provide and the byzantine pay system in place for many prison jobs. It's not just license plates anymore: Prisoners operate call centers, build office furniture and mix the paint used on highways.
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Inmates' Jobs, From Call Centers To Paint Mixing

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Inmates' Jobs, From Call Centers To Paint Mixing

Inmates' Jobs, From Call Centers To Paint Mixing

Inmates' Jobs, From Call Centers To Paint Mixing

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Many people understand inmates have jobs, but don't realize the variety of products and services they provide and the byzantine pay system in place for many prison jobs. It's not just license plates anymore: Prisoners operate call centers, build office furniture and mix the paint used on highways.


Laura Sullivan, NPR police and prisons correspondent
Richard Davison, deputy secretary of Florida Department of Corrections


This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

Last week, inmates in at least seven Georgia prisons coordinated a protest. With smuggled cell phones they all agreed to strike for better pay and working conditions.

We all think of prisoners stamping out license plates or picking vegetables on prison farms, but things are a lot more industrial today. Inmates work at digital printing shops and at call centers. They build office furniture, and they mix the paint that marks your lane in traffic.

As you might suspect, inmates earn considerably less than workers on the outside. States love the programs because they reduce recidivism and they teach prisoners skills. They also save the state some money.

Later in this hour, Senator Bernie Sanders on his eight-and-a-half-hour soliloquy on the Senate floor. But first, if you've had a job in prison, what'd you do? 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We begin with NPR police and prisons correspondent Laura Sullivan. Nice to have you back on the program.

LAURA SULLIVAN: Thank you so much.

CONAN: And what happened in Georgia last week?

SULLIVAN: So in Georgia, you know, Georgia's an interesting state because they do not pay their inmates for the work. I mean, most inmates, more than 90 percent inmates across this country, are doing some kind of prison job. They're either sweeping the floors or working in the kitchen, or they're doing an industry, a prison industry job.

In Georgia, they're doing these jobs, but they don't get paid for it. And so a number of inmates got together and decided to protest these conditions of free labor. And what was interesting about what they did in Georgia is that these - at four different facilities they talked to each other over a cell phone in order to organize their protests.

CONAN: Well, organize their protest and cell phones - those are presumably contraband.

SULLIVAN: Absolutely. I mean, cell phones have become a huge problem in the nation's prisons. Wardens across this country will tell you that they - it's a problem they simply don't know how to get a hold of. And it's also a problem that a lot of prison officials don't want to talk about because the truth is that most of the cell phones are getting into the prisons through correctional officers.

CONAN: And that's presumably a lucrative business.

SULLIVAN: Absolutely. I mean, right now, the going rate, prisoners tell me, is about $500 for a cell phone. So - and once it's out of the officer's hands, there's no way to really trace it back to that officer. It's just $500 easy money.

And then on the outside, the families will pay the service plan. Families will give it to the correctional officer, who will just be a pass-through to the inmate.

CONAN: And what's the upshot of the protests? Is anybody looking into this idea of paying prisoners more and to improve working conditions in Georgia?

SULLIVAN: Yeah - no. Georgia has decided that inmates are required to work, that this is part of their penance to society, that they need to pay their own way for the for their food and their, their, you know, housing, and that this is simply what they require of inmates.

So Georgia is one of several states that believe this. So they require inmates who are able, and not sick, to get up and work during the day and that they will not pay for that work.

The majority of states pay, you know, nine cents, 15 cents on the hour for this work.

CONAN: And do the inmates then get access to that money?

SULLIVAN: They get a part - they get a portion of that money. Most -let's see, part of it goes to victims' rights victims sorry...

CONAN: Compensation fund.

SULLIVAN: Victims' compensation funds. They also have to pay fines that are due to the court. They have to pay child support if they have any. And then they also - a lot of states charge a room and board fee. So they get even a smaller portion of that nine cents.

CONAN: Make a lot of license plates before you see any profits.

SULLIVAN: Absolutely. If you're doing well in prison, you can make $50 a month.

CONAN: Joining us also is Richard Davison. He is the deputy secretary of Florida Department of Corrections, and he's with us from member station WFSU in Tallahassee. Very nice of you to be with us today.

Mr. RICHARD DAVISON (Deputy Secretary, Florida Department of Corrections): Pleased to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And prisons in Florida, do they have industries inside?

Mr. DAVISON: Yes, we have industries, prison rehabilitative industries. Diversified enterprises is the long name. We call it PRIDE, and it's designed to operate vocational work programs and to provide job placement assistance to inmates who come out. And that's been a program that's been in place within the Florida Department of Corrections since 1981.

CONAN: And what do the inmates in Florida make? What kind of activities do they work in?

Mr. DAVISON: Well, we have a variety of programs that they work, ranging from paint, optical labs, graphics, printing, furniture making, support services. It's a variety - approximately 400 different type of training programs.

CONAN: And are prisoners required, as Laura was saying, in some states, required to do this?

Mr. DAVISON: Well, what the prisoners are required to do is each prisoner, and we've got 102,000 inmates, is required to work in some form within the department.

But in terms of our rehabilitative programs, in terms of the diversified industries, we've got approximately four percent, 2,200 of our inmates, who actually earn pay as part of their work.

CONAN: And how much do they get paid?

Mr. DAVISON: It ranges from 25 cent to 50 cent per hour, unless they're working in an industry which they're competing against the private sector. Then they're required to earn the going rate that they would be paid in the private or outside of the prison.

CONAN: Is that - why is that?

Mr. DAVISON: That's in order to level the playing field. Of course we've got inmates who are a ready-made workforce, and we want to make sure that they're not inappropriately competing against the private sector.

CONAN: So your industry would have the same costs in terms of the workforce as the private company that might be competing for the same contract?


CONAN: And that's not always the case, Laura Sullivan.

SULLIVAN: Right. So there are basically three levels of jobs when you're in prison. There's your basic mop the floors, clean the bathrooms, peel the potatoes. And that helps you pay for your own prison upkeep.

Then there's this second level, that he's talking about, where, you know, this is the prison industries, where the prison itself is managing, manufacturing furniture, which they will sell to government agencies.

And it's sort of a self-sustaining program, where it pays for itself, and the more money it brings in, the more inmates they can employ, and they can teach inmates skills like woodworking and solar panel, you know, creation.

And then there's this third level, which is this newer sort of thing that's going on in nine states right now, where they allow a private industry to come in and set up a factory on the prison grounds, and when they do that, they manufacture just about anything.

I mean, California is doing cattle - alfalfa sprout production, and they're doing electronic contract manufacturing. And because they're allowing this private company to come in, they have to pay the going rate. It's $7 an hour - right - $7.25 an hour right now in California.

CONAN: Well, presumably at that rate, the prisoners would have to pay income tax.

SULLIVAN: Yes, they would, and they also have to pay all these other, you know, same fees. It's these are programs that are very small right now. Even in California, it's less than 200 people. In Georgia, they've got 20 inmates in this program.

So these are small programs at the moment, and they're also - you know, there's not a lot of public will behind them, especially in a down economy at the moment.

CONAN: I was just going to say, Richard Davison, don't you have people in Florida who are saying wait a minute, you know, private industry could be making those same things that you're making in prison and selling them to the government as well, and why are you essentially using free or very low-priced labor to compete with the private sector?

Mr. DAVISON: Sure. Neal, as I indicated earlier, where there is competition with the private sector, there are prison industry programs who are required to pay the going rate in order to level the playing field.

And as Laura mentioned earlier, we also have a similar program, which is called the Prison Industry Enhancement, or PIE program, where the private sector industries are allowed to come in and set up industries within our prisons.

And again, that is to sort of level the playing field, afford the opportunity where we've got the nonprofit corporation that's operating within the department and where private entities coming up with industries or ideas that are workable within the department. And they are given the opportunity to utilize inmate labor as well.

CONAN: And would inmate labor be - have the same availability to, you know, safety inspections and to make sure there's enough ventilation and the OSHA rules? Do all those things apply?

Mr. DAVISON: Yes, all of those rules are applicable, whether it's within any program within the Department of Corrections. We ensure that the environment that the inmates are working in are safe, and we have to meet all of the federal as well as state requirements in terms of ensuring the safety of the inmates who participate in the programs.

CONAN: Laura, is that record unblemished?

SULLIVAN: Not quite. I think that that's definitely the goal that prisons set up for themselves, but there's not as much oversight as you find at a factory on the outside. There certainly isn't a union that's standing up for workers' rights and the need for gloves and ventilations and things like that.

And you see - you can find a number of lawsuits throughout the country, especially with the recycling of computer parts, where a lot of the chemicals have seeped onto the floor and into the air. And even some of the correctional officers themselves have sued for just being in that environment.

CONAN: We're talking about jobs in prison today. If you've worked behind bars, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, Craig's(ph) on the line, calling from Marblehead in Ohio.

CRAIG (Caller): Hello. How are you all doing today?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

CRAIG: I worked in a supermax facility in Ohio. There's only one. And there's three main points I'd like to bring up to your panel.

The first is a security issue. When inmates run the prison, there is no real security, and I mean not so much the escaping but as far as abusing, raping and hurting the other prisoners. It happens daily.

The second issue is the human rights. There's a lot of cruel and unusual punishment. When I worked in the kitchen, I had to get up at 3:30, get strip-searched, go to the supermax, and I got back in, I got maybe three hours' sleep a night, because you're in a room with 300 other people.

The third part is economic. You're saying, oh, they make $50 a month, whatever, whatever. What you're not saying is that has to pay for everything: your toiletries, everything. You can't have toothpaste or a toothbrush or soap or anything of that ilk unless you get that money.

A lot of times people get that money and they don't get to keep it because other prisoners beat them or rape them or fill in the blank.

So you have forced work - and let's face it, it's slave labor. That's exactly what it is, because you don't have a choice. You get in there, you have to work. You give your money to someone else. You give you money to your necessities. They're not supplying your necessities, and it's just slave labor.

CONAN: Is that a fair point, Laura Sullivan?

SULLIVAN: Most inmates use that same term, slave labor, across the country. Even when I've gone to different prisons and talked to inmates in these different facilities, they will say that that's what it feels like to them.

CONAN: And it is a company store.

SULLIVAN: And it is. It's - and that's - I mean, that's - inmates don't have power in these situations. So when they are required to work, they are required to work. I mean, this is - it's interesting because states have a love-hate relationship with inmates working.

I mean, on the one hand, they, politicians and top officials don't want to look like they're giving inmates training and good jobs that law-abiding citizens don't have access to. On the other hand, they're desperate to have something to keep the inmates occupied.

CONAN: Craig, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

CRAIG: You're welcome. Have a great day.

CONAN: We're talking about jobs and prisons, 800-989-8255. Email us, Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Im Neal Conan.

A reminder, in three weeks, January 6th, we'll take a look at the role of the explorer in the 21st century and all that's still left to be explored on the planet. Today, you can pinpoint a photo of your house on the Internet in just a few seconds, but no one's ever seen vast areas of the planet.

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Right now, we're talking about working in prison. If you had a job in prison, what'd you do? 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Laura Sullivan, NPR police and prisons correspondent; and Richard Davison, deputy secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections.

We have this email from Deirdre(ph) in Ralston, Wyoming: I have a small company that manufactures and sells catheter leg bed supports and some other products. We've hired one of our state's prisons to manufacture them for us. They have done an excellent job with our product.

We pay prison industries a dollar over minimum wage. It's a real privilege in this prison for them to get the work. I am passionate about hiring these people who have made great mistakes in their lives, but they are paying the price for that every day, and I am not interested in furthering their punishment. It feels great to be able to put their time to good use.

And I guess that's the other side of the call we had just a moment ago. Richard Davison, I'm sure the slave labor allegation is nothing new to you.

Mr. DAVISON: Well, certainly it is a question in terms of how we utilize the time of our inmates. And one of the purposes of our prison industries is to: One, ensure that we have our inmates who are using their time productively instead of basically wasting their time during the day until - having them participate in the rehabilitative programs or the vocational, academic or substance abuse program helps to deal with that idle time.

And the issue of the labor, it - certainly our rehabilitative and prison diversified industries, we allow them the opportunity to earn money where they would not have that opportunity at all.

And so the wages that they earn within the institution allows them to put money in their personal bank accounts, as well as utilize it toward victim restitution and other court-ordered payments.

CONAN: Let's go next to Cat(ph), and Cat's with us from Charlotte.

CAT (Caller): Excuse me?

CONAN: You're on the air, Cat, go ahead.

CAT: Hello, Neal and friends, what a wonderful topic. I had a very different experience than Craig. I certainly empathize with him, but I was in a low-security federal prison, and I received all of the institutional food for the compound, had a very high trust level in my job.

I interacted with people that came in from the outside, and, you know, to bring a sense of self and worth that, you know, a regular job would give to anyone in the world is - it's really important for the rehabilitation process, in my opinion.

CONAN: One of the things people say is you just get used to the idea of going to work every day, and that's an important part of, well, after you get out, being used to going to work.

CAT: Definitely, and it brings a sense of accomplishment. You know, it brings structure to your day. And obviously, like I said, I was in a very different, you know, environment than him. But it's like a small community. It's like a small town because you have plumbing, you have -I mean, any number of things that you would require from a community, job-wise, you find in a prison, and the inmates do everything, and it's really cool.

CONAN: Was there, within the community of people there in the prison with you, were you - was it considered lucky, a good thing, to get that job?

CAT: Yeah because, I mean, I was paid a little bit more. I made roughly like $17 - I mean, within my department, there were people that made more than me, but I drove a forklift all over the compound, and people -I mean, people would - I had access to all the food.

And food is kind of like power in prison, unfortunately. And you were really trusted highly if you were allowed to be in contact with it all day.

CONAN: And I've never done it, but driving a forklift looks like fun.

CAT: Yeah, I know, and I'm a woman. Like, it's just - I mean, not that women don't drive forklifts. But it was just very unconventional, and it taught me a lot of skills that, you know, I never would have learned otherwise.

CONAN: Well, Cat, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

CAT: Thank you so much, Neal.

CONAN: And Laura, that's another thing you hear, that prisoners are anxious to get these jobs.

SULLIVAN: Absolutely. The waiting list for some of these top jobs are years long. I mean, in California, at Folsom, just to get into the Braille program, where they turn textbooks and maps and diagrams and whatnot into Braille, takes years of waiting.

And they have a remarkable statistic too, where in 24 years or something, not a single person who has gone through this Braille program - and become one of these Braille transcribers - and has left prison has ever re-offended. I mean, that's unbelievable, I mean, in California especially.

CONAN: Let's get Davis(ph) on the line, Davis calling us from Boise.

DAVIS (Caller): Hi, Neal, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

DAVIS: I really just had one point that I wanted to make. I did have some inmate labor positions (unintelligible) correctional system. And I think that one thing that is often overlooked in this kind of discussion is that, until we start handing down the death penalty to people who are jaywalkers or write bad checks, people are going to get out of prison.

And if people get out of prison with no practice or experience with basic skills and responsibilities that citizens are expected to have, well, they're not going to do very well.

And I think that these inmate labor programs provide opportunities for inmates to have practice with that kind of skill set.

CONAN: What did you do when you were in prison?

DAVIS: I had a variety of positions. I worked in the kitchen for a time. I was GED tutor. I was a tutor of Braille transcription. There's still a pretty active Braille transcription program going on here in Idaho.

And with respect to that, that was a particular program that thought, you know, empathy, social skills, understanding the situations of others and really provided people with a skill set that is rare in the marketplace.

CONAN: And have you used that skill set since you got out?

DAVIS: No, I haven't. I had a pretty good job opportunity lined up for me when I was released, and so I didn't have any need to pursue that, but I know that some people have, with some success.

CONAN: I wonder, Laura was just saying in California, they say no one who has been through the Braille transcription program has re-offended. Would your experience bear that out?

DAVIS: To my knowledge, none of our participants has re-offended. In the Idaho Braille transcription program, the focus is on recruiting longer-term inmates, as I understand it. And so I don't know that very many of them have been released.

CONAN: Have had the opportunity to re-offend because they're in there for some time.

DAVIS: They could have, though, and I haven't heard any news that any of them have.

CONAN: All right, Davis, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

DAVIS: Thank you.

CONAN: This email from Richard(ph) in Two Harbors, Minnesota: I run a sign shop that produces ADA signage for office buildings. The state of Minnesota also runs a sign shop producing ADA signage by prisoners at their facility at Moose Lake.

They also hire the guards to install the signs after-hours. I pay my employers $15 to $18 an hour. I cannot compete at 50 cents or less an hour because that's what they pay the sex-offender prisoners. So that's...

SULLIVAN: And that right there, he puts his finger right there on the problem and why this topic gets so controversial.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Lonnie(ph), Lonnie with us from Holland, Michigan.

LONNIE (Caller): Yeah, I just want to comment on the same playing field. I work in office furniture in Holland here, and that's been an issue in the past. It's been brought up at work, that these prisoners are taking jobs away from the office furniture industry.

And we probably average $14 or $15 an hour. And plus, you know, we've got to pay for insurance and property tax. So, you know, those things would make it an uneven playing field, in my opinion. And I'll take your questions off the air.

CONAN: Lonnie, thanks very much. And Laura, you were saying earlier, this is a particularly sore issue in Michigan.

SULLIVAN: Absolutely because this is where a lot of the furniture manufacturing is. And like Lonnie was saying, it's even more than that because the prison doesn't have to pay for health care. They don't have to pay benefits. They don't have to pay retirement.

It's - especially for a company that comes in and sets up a factory in there, it's very lucrative for that company to do that.

So, you know, it's a question of when does society want to pay for? Do you want to pay the prison costs of people who are recidivating and continuing to commit crimes, and then you pay for more prisons? Or you rehabilitate them, but you take the jobs away from people who are on the outside.

CONAN: Is that the choice, Richard Davison?

Mr. DAVISON: Well, that's absolutely one of the choices. And I will tell you that one of the primary purposes of our programs is to reduce the recidivism rate. We have approximately 88 percent of the inmates who are in our prisons will be leaving prison one day.

Our general recidivism rate is about 33 percent. But for inmates who go through our industries, that recidivism rate drops from 33 percent down to about 14 percent.

CONAN: And that's significant.

Mr. DAVISON: So we are significantly reducing recidivism, crime. We are increasing public safety, and that's our primary focus.

CONAN: This email from Jeremy(ph), another listener in Holland, Michigan: I enjoyed and appreciated working during my brief stint in jail. Doing lawn work at cemeteries and public parks got us out into the sunshine, broke up boredom, helped to sleep well at night, not to mention getting one day off your sentence for every three at work. I would take this "slave labor" - as he put it in quotation marks -anytime, given the choice.

That's jail, which is different from prison.

SULLIVAN: Yes, that's different from prison. That's where you go before you're convicted or if your sentence is short. But, yeah, I mean, you know, it really comes down to the job.

If you are out there planting flowers or doing something out in the public, or you're in a trustworthy position or you're doing underwater diving, welding programs like they have in California, those are - most inmates would love to have that kind of job. If you're picking cotton in 110-degree heat in Angola, in Louisiana, with your bare hands, yeah, most inmates don't want to do that. So it depends.

CONAN: Let's go next to David(ph), David with us from Nashville.

DAVID (Caller): Yeah, I appreciate the call there. I have to unfortunately say I spent almost 13 years in a Tennessee prison where I had two clerical positions. And I cannot say that it was slave labor at all, but it did break up the boredom. It did keep you from getting into trouble. And Tennessee does offer their own version of the industry's portion.

But Tennessee only sells inmate-made products to state-owned agencies or state-run agency. The pay is not good. You can make between 16 and 50 cents an hour. Yes, you must pay for your own personal items, snacks and food. But, unfortunately, it is a prison.

CONAN: It is a prison and people are there for a reason.

DAVID: Exactly. And if you take your job seriously - I designed some computer programs for them. The first was in a medical facility, where they housed mental health and medical patients, to track and order the medical supplies of which a lot of them, for instance, syringes and lancets, things like that, you knew you don't touch those. You see them coming in, you knew your job, you don't cross that line and there's no problem.

I was moved to a different facility with a lower security level. I handled the maintenance department's ordering and tracking. As long as you remembered who you were and where you were, you got along just like it was a regular nine-to-five job.

CONAN: Except you didn't get in your car and drive home at night.

DAVID: Yeah. Well, yeah. We got to ride in the van back to the front gate with a stripe on our pants. Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: That makes it different. Yeah. And I suppose they didn't stop at McDonald's on the way.

DAVID: Absolutely not. They would take us to the cafeteria with - for lunch or we had our bag lunches. That was it.

Mr. DAVISON: Right.

CONAN: David, thanks very much for the call. And I hope you're doing well on the outside.

DAVID: Oh, it's been over six years now and it's just fine.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the phone call.

DAVID: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking about jobs in prison. Our guests are Laura Sullivan, who's NPR's police and prisons correspondent. Also Richard Davison, who's deputy secretary at the Florida Department of Corrections, with us from WFSU, our member station in Tallahassee. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.

And forgive me if I've asked you this before, Richard Davison. But the items manufactured by prisoners in Florida are sold only to state agencies?

Mr. DAVISON: Well, actually, it's sold - about 72 percent goes to state or governmental agency. And about 28 percent of those are actually sold to the private sector.

CONAN: Such as?

Mr. DAVISON: Well, there are companies that owns...

CONAN: Set up these facilities, factories inside the prisons.

Mr. DAVISON: Right. Actually, and they're sold to private sector, whether it's individuals or businesses.

CONAN: All right. Laura?

SULLIVAN: The difference is like you can't go online and order a pair of - a T-shirt and some socks that were made in prison, or you can't go and order a chair that was manufactured in prison as just sort of the general public.

But there are these sort of loopholes where the products can make its way into the private sector. And, you know, most of these - most of them - the vast majority of prisons across this country are prohibited by law from selling to anybody other than state or federal government. The Federal Bureau of Prisons is only allowed to sell to the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security. Those make up the bulk of their sales.

CONAN: Let's go to Tom(ph), Tom with us from East Bay in California.

TOM (Caller): Yeah. You know, I worked in UNICOR when I was in prison. And, you know, we built desks and, you know, you ran the ad there for UNICOR when you started your program.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

TOM: But one thing that prisons don't provide is worker's compensation insurance. And, you know, they don't give you any training. We had one of the inmates - I earned about 53 cents an hour. We had one of the inmates that was in our facility that actually had - cut three of his fingers off on a table saw. And his worker's comp program that the federal prison has was to - after they got him out of the hospital and took care of him, they sent him to a job making 17 cents an hour. And this guy is disfigured and disabled, you know, that has a disability for life. And I'm not sure that he's entitled to any other compensation beyond that.

CONAN: Laura.

SULLIVAN: Right. I - he's absolutely right. There's just not - there's simply not the kind of oversight in prison that you would find in the private sector. And mostly, there's no unions in prison, and there's just nobody that's really fighting for workers' rights. So they're only going to get what the state or the prison officials feel is fair. And that can often cause some trouble.

TOM: Yup.

CONAN: Tom, are you doing well now?

TOM: I'm doing well. I've been out 10 years.

CONAN: Congratulations on that. Making furniture, perhaps?

TOM: Oh, no. Absolutely not. No, I had a career when I went to prison. And I told them I was going back to my career when I got out of prison. And it never slowed me down for a minute.

CONAN: Well, thanks, Tom. And we're glad that worked out for you.

TOM: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email from Kristen(ph) in Albany, Oregon: My fianc� and I are listening to this program with interest. We - he spent years in prison in Oregon during the '90s and had a variety of jobs during his incarceration, including kitchen and construction positions. While he wouldn't necessarily call it slave labor, he would agree that the pay for these jobs is extremely low and important. He worked in a prevailing wage construction job as a prisoner and made a dollar a day.

Being paid to work brings more than money. It brings a sense of worth, accomplishment, independence during a time that you have little of any of those things. Prisoners are in prison and that is the punishment. Working shouldn't be the punishment. It should be an educational chance and an opportunity to learn things besides becoming a better criminal. My fianc� became a general contractor when he came out.

SULLIVAN: Yeah. In that - in addition to giving inmates a sense of self-worth, the small amount of money that they have to pay also prohibits great, a great deal of corruption.

I mean, in the early - part of the 20th century where this whole thing started, where inmates were working for free, what ended up happening was somebody would come and say, well, I really need this building built. And they would hand the warden, you know, $5,000, which would end up in his back pocket and he would send 20 inmates out into the street to go do this work. And there was no paper record of anything that was going on. There was no money that was coming in and out to sort of cement that this deal had been made. So it prevents a lot of sort of back-deal making.

CONAN: All right. Laura Sullivan, thanks, as always, for your time.

SULLIVAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Laura Sullivan, NPR police and prisons correspondent. We also need to thank Richard Davison, deputy secretary of Florida's Department of Corrections, with us from WFSU in Tallahassee. Appreciate your time today.

Mr. DAVISON: Thank you, Neal. Enjoyed it.

CONAN: When we come back, Senator Bernie Sanders on his eight and a half hour tax protest at the Senate last week. Stay with us for that.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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