Stitches February 2011 : Page 47

to Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., just like anyone else might. The difference is that Elliott does it inside Montana Women’s Prison, where she’s serving a 30-year sentence for deliberate homicide. Montana is one of an increasing number of states to run decorated-apparel operations inside their prisons. Inmates train and work in commercial operations providing embroidery, screen printing and other apparel decoration. Some, like Mon-tana and West Virginia, have small opera-tions that only sell to schools, school orga-nizations, nonprofi t groups and state agen-cies, and have just a handful of workers. The inmates with the best behavior records draw these jobs, learning how to work commercial embroidery machines and design spiritwear for schools and T-shirts for charities. Other states, like Iowa and Utah, tie into a federal program that allows them to partner with private companies that can sell to anyone. Lansing Correctional Facility in Kansas partnered with a company called Impact Design to create a three-shift, 24-7 operation that is one of the nation’s largest contract decorators – and the fourth-larg-est, public/private prison labor partnership in any industry, according to the National Correctional Industries Association. Advocates of these programs say they help rehabilitate inmates by teaching them job and life skills that prepare them to return and contribute to society in a positive way, and many inmates prize the jobs as being among the most desirable in their respective prisons. A 2009 study by the Washington Institute for Public Policy found that every dollar spent on correc-tional industries resulted in $32.70 less spent on dealing with ex-convicts renew-ing their criminal behavior, a practice known as recidivism. “Ninety-seven percent of offenders here are going to be released,” says Donna Gober, brand manager for Washing-ton Correctional Industries, which runs embroidery and screen-printing opera-tions. “They’re going to be your neighbor. I’d much rather have someone with job skills next door to me than someone with-out them, because the risk of recidivism is so much lower.” Some critics, however, say some prison operations exploit powerless inmates in order to make money for private compa-nies, and these critics push for reform-ing the system. “The current situation with regards to prisoners is equivalent to slave labor,” says Alex Friedmann, associ-ate editor of Prison Legal News magazine and co-Pam Elliott is the lead author of Prison Profi teers: designer for Montana Who Makes Money from Women’s Prison. She learned embroidery and Mass Imprisonment. “In screen printing despite their present form, they having minimal training and working with out-shouldn’t exist.” Mean-dated and often broken while, questions consis-equipment. She’s helped produce high-quality tently arise over whether designs for schools, companies using prison charities and govern-ment agencies. labor benefi t from cheap labor. For example, one Texas-based tractor trailer man-ufacturer cited prison-based competition when it closed a factory in 2008. “They’re allow-ing someone to compete at an unfair advantage,” says Harvey Mackler, owner of Gempire ( asi/55610 ), a Florida-based supplier. What’s clear is that not all prison apparel operations are created equal. To understand the differences, it helps to understand how it all works. ON THE CHAIN GANG Prison labor has existed for almost as long as there have been prisons. Australia owes its origins to the British Empire’s founding of penal colonies on the continent in the late 18th century. Japan and China have long put their prison inmates to work, and few things in human history are as notori-ous as Siberian labor camps in the former Soviet Union. In the U.S., the 13th Amend-ment explicitly allows prison labor, stating, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Despite constitutional protection, the use of prison labor in the U.S. had its share of infamy, largely in the Deep South, until the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 vastly expanded the rights of workers, including prisoners. “Wardens would lease out con-victs to mills, plantations and the like,” says Jeffrey Ian Ross, a criminologist at the University of Baltimore. “Either the war-den would personally get wealthy in the process, or the money would go back to the state. That’s sort of the underbelly of the history here. That’s why Taft-Hartley addressed this.” Taft-Hartley improved the rights of workers, but it also altered the prospect of private partnerships for prison labor, which cut out a source of revenue for running the prisons themselves. Then in 1979, Justice System Improve-ment Act authorized prisons to engage in private interstate commerce – and autho-rized partnerships with private industry through the Prison Industry Enhancement Certifi cate Program, or PIE program, as it’s typically called. PIE programs have sev-eral requirements, such as mandates to pay inmate employees prevailing wages similar ---FEBRUARY 2011 47

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