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Jails and Inmate Labor: Location, Location, Location.

Jails are not the first thing that come to mind when most people think of inmate labor, especially when the term "correctional industries" is used. But the importance of jails is poised to grow dramatically in the coming years. Why? Simply put, location. Geographic location, the location of jails within the criminal justice system, and location of jails within community systems and political structures.

While jail inmates are involved with work activities less frequently than their state and federal counterparts (see Figure 1), the importance of jail inmate labor should not be dismissed.

Currently, jail inmate work activity produces more than 188 million hours of labor annually, not including labor produced by inmates who work less than full time. Because most jail inmates are involved with work activities that support the operation of their jails (e.g., food service, cleaning and maintenance), the cost to local governments to replace the inmate work force would be staggering - More than $1 billion if inmate labor is valued at minimum wage with no benefits.

Jails in Context

A recent report by the American Bar Association (ABA) Subcommittee on Correctional Industries offers some perspective on the characteristics of jails and prisons, as shown in Figure 2. While there are nearly twice as many inmates housed in state and federal correctional facilities, there are more than twice as many facilities (jails) operated at the local level. Nearly 70 percent of all detention and correctional facilities in the United States are locally operated, usually by county sheriffs. Three thousand, one hundred forty-seven distinct units of government operate one or more detention or correctional facilities in the United States; 3,096 - 98 percent - are local (county and city).

State and federal correctional policy is set by three entities: a legislature (U.S. Congress or state legislature); an executive entity (president or governor); and the agency responsible for administering and operating the correctional system (Federal Bureau of Prisons or state corrections department). At the local level, similar entities also are involved: a legislative entity (usually an elected board of county commissioners); an executive entity responsible for local detention/corrections and usually other responsibilities, such as civil process and law enforcement (usually an elected county sheriff); and an administrative entity, such as a jail administrator.

As Figure 3 suggests, participation in policy-making at the local level is much broader than at the state or federal level. At first glance, implementing new policies, such as increased inmate work, appears to be easier at the state and local levels - There simply are fewer policy-makers who need to be persuaded. But viewed another way, a lot more people at the local level have a "stake" in detention and corrections - Especially in terms of cost. A county legislative official (such as a county commissioner) has to balance a county budget of which detention/corrections represents a major component (15.5 percent on average, compared to 5.9 percent of state budgets). Not only do more local officials have a stake in corrections, but they have a more direct interest in controlling costs. And jail inmate labor already is an essential cost-control activity.

Understanding Inmate Labor "Stakeholders"

In 1996, the ABA Subcommittee on Correctional Industries began an initiative to assemble the viewpoints of the varied stakeholders who have an interest in inmate labor in the United States, with the hope of moving the parties toward a greater consensus. The subcommittee eventually identified a surprisingly broad range of parties and entities that have a "stake" in inmate labor (see Figure 4).
Figure 1

Proportion of Inmates Involved with Full-Time Work

Level of
Government Proportion of Average Daily
Operating Inmates who Number of Full-Time
Facility Work Full Time Inmate Workers

Federal 77% 76,429 inmate workers
State 40.8% 432,311 inmate workers
Local (jails) 18.2% 103,208 inmate workers

Source for all tables: Discussion Draft, Inmate Labor in America's
correctional Facilities, American Bar Association (ABA) Subcommittee
on Correctional Industries, 1998, and Bureau of Justice Assistance
(BJA) Jail Work and Industries Center.

The subcommittee posed questions to representatives of each stakeholder group, contacting more than 100 individuals and organizations. From their responses, a tentative stakeholder "map" was developing, identifying the nature of each stakeholder's interest in inmate labor. The subcommittee was surprised to find that, "just about everyone we contacted had at least one positive thing to say about assigning inmates to work and employing them in correctional industries ... even traditional opponents ... readily identified at least one benefit associated with inmate work and industry."

Respondents framed the benefits in terms of offenders, economics, correctional management, society, inmate families and victims. But respondents also articulated many concerns about inmate work and industry, in terms of the marketplace, security, information, inmates, legal/administrative issues and productivity. The primary concerns identified were:

* Fairness to free world businesses and workers in terms of competition

* The "monopoly" status of correctional industries

* Displacement of outside workers and welfare concerns

* Providing equitable wages to inmates

* Perception that inmate-produced goods are inferior

* Availability of qualified inmate workers

* The need to create transitional job experiences

* How to attract business partners

* Facility and community security issues

* Potential for abuse of inmates

* The need to educate the public

Respondents also offered their predictions about the future of inmate labor and correctional industries, as shown in Figure 5.

Geographic Location of Jails

Local jails are located in virtually every one of the 3,038 counties in the United States. Some counties operate more than one detention or correctional facility. With only a few exceptions, the nation's 3,304 jails are located within the boundaries of the counties they serve, which means a county jail can be found within 50 miles of just about any point in the continental United States.



The location of state and federal correctional facilities follows a much different pattern. There are half as many state and federal correctional facilities as jails, and many of the older facilities are located in remote, rural areas, consistent with policies implemented earlier this century.

Jails are dispersed more evenly throughout the United States and jail locations generally correspond more closely with the density of the general population. In short, jails are closer.

"Location" of Jails in the Criminal Justice System

The population of local jails is almost exclusively determined by local criminal justice polices and practices. Jail populations reflect local law enforcement priorities, sentencing policies, and bail and pretrial release practices. Sentenced offenders in jails (who comprise about half the average daily jail population) were sent there by local judges; offenders in state systems were sentenced by judges throughout a state. The majority of detainees and offenders housed in jails are residents of the county in which they are held, or of adjacent counties. The majority of jail inmates will live in the local area after release. Jails usually house two very distinct types of inmates: short-term detainees who will spend three days or less in confinement, and longer-term detainees and offenders. State and federal prisons admitted 538,375 offenders in 1997; jails admitted more than 10 million.

Jails have contact with many more individuals than state/federal correctional facilities and for shorter periods of time. Although some jail detainees are held prior to disposition in the courts and are eventually sentenced to state correctional facilities, the majority of jail inmates will spend their entire periods of confinement in county jails. Jail sentences are shorter than prison sentences; most states limit jail sentences to one year or less, although some allow sentencing to jails for as long as six years. As a result, jails house sentenced offenders who have been convicted of less serious crimes, and who are arguably more susceptible to corrective measures. Jails are more directly and actively involved with local diversion activities, including creative alternatives to confinement. They are more actively involved with releasing offenders directly into the community.

At the local level, jails are an integral and flexible component of the local criminal justice system. Jails are more directly available to the local criminal justice system for creative and innovative new practices. For example, when a law enforcement and legislative crackdown on drunken drivers caused severe crowding in Kennebec County, Maine, the sheriff devised an innovative alternative to jail confinement that combined weekend use of local schools, offender labor to. improve the host facilities, substance abuse education and screening, and victims' perspectives. The Kennebec County Operating Under the Influence (OUI) program has been replicated throughout Maine and many other states, and shows encouraging reductions in recidivism compared to jail confinement.

Location of Jails in Community Systems and Political Structures

Kennebec County is a good example of the jaws location within community systems - The OUI program mobilized and served the educational community, human services, substance abuse and victims. Because of the characteristics and volume of jail admissions, many jails are able to serve as active points of identification, treatment and referral for local residents. An innovative program in Strafford County, N.H., brings the families of offenders who are working in the jail's private sector industry program to the jail for a weekend prerelease preparation program. Strafford's family program involves offenders' spouses, children and others in a structured and intensive effort to identify needs, secure services and resources, and prepare all concerned parties for the successful release of offenders.

Strafford County is another good example of the way jails can connect with the local business community. Strafford County uses a substantial number of its medium security sentenced and pretrial inmates in a private sector industry program whose primary customer is a local electronics fabricator. The company would send work to its Dominican Republic contractor if the jail were not available to provide a work force. In neighboring Belknap County, the most sought-after inmate job is assembling crutches for a local manufacturer, meeting short-term and peak demands for labor.

Because most jails are operated by elected county sheriffs, they are accessible to the political structures that shape local policies, and often which influence public opinion. Sheriffs, county commissioners, prosecutors and other county officials are well-known locally and usually take active roles in public education.

Location + Access + Visibility = Innovation

If jails are so well-positioned for inmate labor innovation, why isn't more being written about them? There will be. Current jail work and industry practices already demonstrate extraordinary diversity and creativity. Consider the following examples of work already implemented inside U.S. jails:

* Mailing, collating, document assembly (Arlington County, Va.; Littleton, Colo.; Lancaster County, Pa.; Stutsman County, N.D.)

* Computer-based work (data entry, archiving, etc.) (Strafford County, N.H.; Ventura County, Calif.; Bucks County, Pa.; Newcastle, Del.)

* Graphics (Plymouth County Mass.; Arlington County Va.; Monterey County, Calif.)

* Engraving (Sacramento County, Calif.; Harris County, Texas; Tulare County, Calif.)

* Telephone Services (Los Angeles County, Calif.; Stutsman County, N.D.; Sacramento County, Calif.)

* Clerical and office services (records, files, transcription, archiving) (Dauphin County, Pa.; Ottawa County, Mich.; Franklin County, Ark.; Onondaga County, N.Y.)

* Assembly (Hennepin County, Minn. [dog runs]; Strafford County, N.H. [electronics]; Belknap County, N.H. [crutches]; Barnstable County, Mass.)

* Disassembly (Strafford County, N.H. [shoes, model railroad tracks])

* Packaging, piecework, "job shop" (Barnstable County, Mass.; Hennepin County, Minn. [shrink-wrap])

* Repair/refurbishing (Hampden County, Mass.; Kendall County, Ill. [toys/bikes for children]; Bexar County, Texas [furniture]; Philadelphia [metal furniture])

* Printing, bindery (Arlington County, Va.; Plymouth County, Mass.; Harris County, Texas; Onondaga County, N.Y.)

* Fabrication (Bexar County, Texas, partially assembles computers; Belknap County, N.H., operates a wood shop with own line of products; Hall County, Maine, [computer]; Hampden County, Mass., markets its own design of secretarial chair; and Wood County, Ohio, markets a wooden Adirondack chair)

* Electronics/electrical (Copiah County, Miss.; Strafford County, N.H.; Shelby County, Tenn.)

* Sewing (Sussex County, N.J.; Onondaga County, N.Y.; Thurston County, Wash.)

* Food service (e.g., Meals on Wheels preparation, shelter meals) (Arlington County, Va.; Arapahoe County, Colo.; Rio Arriba County, N.M.)

* Services for the Blind (enter documents into braille, read for audio tapes) (Bucks County, Pa.)

* Auto maintenance/repair (Belknap County, N.H.; Plymouth County, Mass.)

* Small engine repair (Plymouth County, Mass.)

These are only a few of the work projects that jails have successfully implemented. Some jails have been able to involve more than half their inmate populations in full-time work activity. With a national average of less than 20 percent [TABULAR DATA FOR FIGURE 5 OMITTED] of jail inmates currently assigned to full-time work, there is large potential for the expansion of jail inmate labor.

Given the location of jails, the number of persons who have stakes in jail funding and policies, and the creativity that already has been demonstrated, watch for more innovative initiatives as we enter the new century.

ABA Subcommittee Stakeholder List


Correctional Administrators

Correctional Officers

UNICOR/Federal Industries

State Correctional Industries

Local Detention/Corrections

Correctional Program Providers

Private Corrections

Offender Advocates

Offender Families



Vendors (suppliers to corrections)

Private "Partner"


Private Labor Organizations

Public Labor Organizations


Legislative Branch

Judicial Branch

Finance and Purchasing

Federal PIE Initiative




Taxpayer Advocates








National Institute of Justice. 1993. Work in America's jails. Washington, D.C.: U.S. (August).

Miller, Rod, Mary Shilton and Tom Petersik. 1998. Discussion draft, Inmate labor in America's correctional facilities. American Bar Association Subcommittee on Correctional Industries. (May).

Rod Miller is project director for the Bureau of Justice Assistance and Jail Work and Industry Center in Poolesville, Md.
COPYRIGHT 1999 American Correctional Association, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Author:Miller, Rod
Publication:Corrections Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 1999
Previous Article:Prisons, Work and Re-Entry.
Next Article:A New Approach To Offender Job Placement.

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