Factories Behind Fences: Do Prison ‘Real Work’ Programs Work?

From Plantation to Penitentiary to the Prison-Industrial Complex:
Literature of the American Prison

by H. Bruce Franklin

(Paper delivered at the Modern Language Association Convention, December, 2000.)

The prison looms today as a central feature of American society. Since 1976, we have been building on average one prison every week. More than two million Americans are now crammed into the nation's still overcrowded jails and prisons. In fact, there are now about as many prisoners in America as there are farmers. Over half of those incarcerated are people of color. More than four million Americans, again mainly people of color, have been permanently disenfranchised because of felony convictions, many under laws enacted explicitly to prevent African-Americans from voting. (1) Studies have shown that this disenfranchisement has had a significant impact on the outcome of presidential and senate elections prior to 2000. (2) We need no detailed studies to show the direct impact of this disenfranchisement on the most recent national election. Prior to November 2000, one third of the African-American men in Florida were convicted as felons and then stripped of their right to vote, while thousands more were purged from the voting rolls as alleged felons by fiat of a corporation hired by Governor Jeb Bush. If only a small percentage of Florida's 204,000 disenfranchised male African-American citizens (not to mention the other 200,000 disenfranchised ex-felons in Florida) had been allowed to vote in 2000, even the U.S. Supreme Court could not have installed George W. Bush as President of the United States.

As the prison has become ever more central to American society, oral and written literature created by American prisoners and ex-prisoners has become ever more vital to understanding its wider significance. One central theme unifies the entire body of American prison literature, a theme that emerged from African-American experience: Who are the real criminals? As Frederick Douglass wrote in 1845 about the law-abiding citizens of America: "I could regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers, who had left their homes, and gone to Africa, and stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery." A hundred and twenty five years later, George Drumgold, writing from Comstock Prison, expressed a similar idea in this couplet:

They say we're the criminals, a threat to society
But in truth they stole us, so how can that be?

But there's a difference. Unlike Drumgold, Douglass did not have to be convicted of a crime to be enslaved.

Prior to the Civil War, African-American slavery was not legitimized or rationalized by any claim that the slaves were being punished for crimes. That was to come next. The necessary legal transformation was effected in 1865 by the very Amendment to the Constitution--Article 13--that abolished the old form of slavery:

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 . . . .

Article 13 actually wrote slavery into the Constitution of the United States, but only for those people legally defined as criminals. So America now had to transform the freed slaves into criminals--by law and through culture.

Why? Because massive slave labor was needed for the plantations, coal mines, lumber camps, railroad and road construction, and prison factories, where during the Civil War white slaves produced equipment for the Union army.

The former slave states immediately devised legislation--the Black Codes--branding almost every former slave as a criminal. These laws specified that many vaguely defined acts--such as "mischief" and "insulting gestures"--were crimes, but only if committed by a "free negro." Mississippi's Vagrancy Act defined "all free negroes and mulattoes over the age of eighteen" as criminals unless they could furnish written proof of a job at the beginning of every year. (3) "Having no visible means of support" was a crime being committed by almost all the freed slaves. So was "loitering" (staying in the same place) and "vagrancy" (wandering).

Many of the new convicts were leased. The convict lease system had a big advantage for the enslavers: since they did not own the convicts, they lost nothing by working them to death. For example, the death rate among leased Alabama black convicts during just one year (1869) was 41 percent. (4) Much of the railroad system throughout the South was built by leased convicts, often packed in rolling iron cages moved from job to job, working in such hellish conditions that their life expectancy rarely exceeded two years. (5)

Besides leasing convicts, states expanded their own prison slavery. The infrastructure of many southern states was built and maintained by convicts. For example, aged African-American women convicts dug the campus of Georgia State College, and prisoners as young as twelve worked in chain gangs to maintain the streets of Atlanta. (6) Some states went into big business, selling products of convict labor. Hence the vast state prison plantations established in Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, where cotton picked by prisoners was manufactured into cloth by other prisoners in prison cotton mills. These plantations dwarfed the largest cotton plantations of the slave South in size, brutality--and profitability.

The old plantation slave songs now metamorphosed into the convict work songs of the prison plantations, the forest-clearing and tunneling crews, the road and track-laying gangs. The encoded hopes for liberation and mass escape characteristic of the slave songs were now replaced by the grim desperation of such widely sung convict songs as "Go Down Old Hannah," with its visions of "a dead man, on every turn row," or hammer songs that turned the beat of the work instrument into the beat of despair or hope for individual escape. Another hope lay in some heroic existential triumph over the machine and the bosses, as in "John Henry." But the most audacious figure was the Black Bad Man, the criminal as hero. Singing songs such as "Po' Laz'rus" thus itself became a form of rebellion against the white man's law and order, suggesting a direct line from these songs to Gangsta Rap.

Scores of African-American convict artists then transmuted those collective prison songs into individual works that shaped the blues tradition forming the fountainhead of jazz, soul, rock, and rap--that is, the core of modern American music--which has become the dominant music of the world.

The prison experience is explicit in many of the formative blues songs such as "Penal Farm Blues," "Prison Bound," "Back in Jail Again," "My Home Is a Prison," and the many different songs entitled "Prison Blues," "Jailhouse Blues," and "Chain Gang Blues." Many of the finest artists were prisoners and ex-prisoners: Bukka White, Leroy Carr, Charley Patton, Cow Cow Davenport, Robert Pete Williams, Texas Alexander, Son House, Willie Newbern, and of course Leadbelly, Lightnin' Hopkins, whose ankles bore the scars of chain gang shackles, and Billie Holiday, who was first jailed at the age of ten for resisting a sexual assault.

From the 1860s until the mid 1960s, Black prison literature remained predominantly oral. Unlike the period before the Civil War when prose narratives by former slaves were widely published, African-American convicts had few publishing avenues prior to the mid 1960s. Even one of the rare exceptions--the great convict novelist Chester Himes--was forced into European exile to gain access to publishers and an audience.

Meanwhile, however, written literature by white convicts had become increasingly influential. Writers such as Jack London, Agnes Smedley, Kate Richards O'Hare, Robert Burns, and Nelson Algren had given America terrifying visions of itself from the bottom of its class pits. These two streams, Black and white, oral and written, merged into an explosive torrent of prison literature in the mid 1960s, signaled by the publication in 1965 of one of the most influential books in American literature, The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

The tidal wave of great literature--fiction, nonfiction, drama, and poetry--that poured out of America's prisons from the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s did not emerge by chance. Tens of millions of Americans were being drawn into the global struggle against colonialism and imperialism, a struggle that swept into America in the urban rebellions that began in 1964 and culminated in April 1968 with revolts in 125 U.S. cities the week after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. A year earlier, King, himself a former prisoner, had declared that in Vietnam our nation was fighting on "the wrong side of a global revolution" and our government was now "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." The radical voices from prison were now as varied as George Jackson, Etheridge Knight, Iceberg Slim, Piri Thomas, Jack Abbott, and Donald Goines.

In response came a ferocious repression of prison literature: Creative writing courses and other prison educational programs were defunded. Congress abolished Pell Grants for prisoners. "Son of Sam" laws outlawed convicts earning money from their writings. (7) By 1984, every journal devoted to publishing poetry and stories by prisoners was wiped out.

Amid this repression, the literature coming out of America's prisons today is even more crucial, as writers like Jimmy Santiago Baca, Patricia McConnel, Dannie Martin, Kathy Boudin, and Mumia Abu-Jamal reveal what our society is becoming. American prison literature is now a defining feature of American culture.

Once upon a time, before the late 1960s, the literature canonized in our anthologies and the literature taught at all levels of American education, not to mention the literature departments of most colleges and universities, were all as white as the skeleton on the prow of the slave ship in Herman Melville's Benito Cereno. And the literature of the ante-bellum United States was being taught as though it were not the product of a society that revolved around its most distinguishing institution: African-American slavery. In the wake of those urban rebellions, racial integration began to penetrate literature departments, anthologies, and the canon of American literature. No enlightened person today would think of teaching exclusively white American literature or--and this is a more critical point--teaching nineteenth-century American literature without reference to slavery as its matrix. Just as slavery was the central and distinguishing feature of American society before the Civil War, the modern prison system, which was largely an American innovation, has ever since the Civil War been evolving into a central institution of contemporary America. Indeed, today the prison-industrial complex is a feature that distinguishes American society from all other societies in the twenty-first century. So if we teach modern American literature without reference to the American prison and its literature, we are behaving like those who failed to see, hear, or speak about slavery and its literature.


1. On the history of felony disenfranchisement laws, including explicit expressions of the intent to prevent African-Americans from voting, see Andrew L. Shapiro, "Challenging Criminal Disenfranchisement Under the Voting Rights Act: A New Strategy," Yale Law Journal, 103 (1993), 537-566.

2. See Jamie Fellner and Marc Mauer, Losing the Vote: The Impact of Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States (Washington, DC: The Sentencing Project and Human Rights Watch, 1998) and Jeff Manza, Christopher Uggen, and Marcus Britton, "The Truly Disfranchised: Felon Voting Rights and American Politics," Working Paper, 2001.

3. David M. Oshinsky, "Worse Than Slavery": Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice (New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1997), 21. This book provides a marvelous history of how the penal system was used to reenslave African-American people.

4. Report of the Board of Inspectors of Convicts for the State of Alabama, cited in John G. Van Deusen, The Black Man in White America (Washington, DC: Associated Publishers, 1938), 124.

5. Oshinsky, 58-59.

6. Paul Oliver, The Meaning of the Blues (New York: Collier Books, 1963), 240; W. E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Fawcett, 1961), 134.

7. Joseph Bruchac, "The Decline and Fall of Prison Literature," Small Press (January/February 1987), 28-32; Scott Christianson, "Corrections Law Developments: Barring the Convict from the Proceeds of His Story," Criminal Law Bulletin 16 (May-June 1980), 279-287.

Copyright 2002 by H. Bruce Franklin. All rights reserved.

E-mail to H. Bruce Franklin: hbf@andromeda.rutgers.edu

Agroterrorism—Why We’re Not Ready: A Look at the Role of Law Enforcement

by Glenn R. Schmitt

About the Author
Mr. Schmitt is the director of the Office of Research and Data at the U.S. Sentencing Commission and the former acting director of the National Institute of Justice.

This article first appeared in the May/June 2006 issue of Sheriff magazine, a bimonthly publication of the National Sheriffs’ Association (www.sheriffs.org). It is reprinted here with permission.

Terrorists trying to damage the U.S. economy need look no further than the country’s heartland for “soft” targets. Farms, ranches, and feedlots are open and generally unprotected. The majority of State and local law enforcement agencies are financially and strategically unprepared to respond to agroterrorism.

Public health officials may seem like the logical leaders for responding to an attack on the food supplies. However, the laws of many States require that agroterrorism be handled as a crime investigation, giving law enforcement primary responsibility.

State and local law enforcement officials should be asking:

Are the farms, fields, and feedlots in my jurisdiction protected?
Do I have a strategy to prevent agroterrorism?
Do I have a partnership with ranchers, farmers, meatpackers, truckers, veterinarians, and public health officials?
Is my agency prepared for agroterrorists?

Agroterrorism experts are especially concerned about the introduction of foot-and-mouth disease into the food supply. Twenty times more infectious than smallpox, the disease causes painful blisters on the tongues, hooves, and teats of cloven-hoofed animals—cattle, hogs, sheep, goats, deer—rendering them unable to walk, give milk, eat, and drink. Although people generally cannot contract the disease, they can carry the virus in their lungs up to 48 hours and transmit it to animals. The animal-to-animal airborne transmission range is 50 miles.

With millions of farms, open fields, and feedlots in the United States, the introduction of foot-and-mouth disease would require the mass slaughter and disposal of infected animals. An outbreak could halt the domestic and international sale of meat and meat products for years. Foot-and-mouth disease in 2001 in the United Kingdom affected 9,000 farms and required the destruction of more than 4,000,000 cows. Researchers believe that a similar outbreak in the United States would cost taxpayers up to $60 billion.[1]

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) recently funded research into how an agroterrorist attack with foot-and-mouth disease in Kansas would affect the State and the country.[2] The Kansas Bureau of Investigation, the Ford County Sheriff’s Department in Kansas, and the National Agriculture Biosecurity Center at Kansas State University conducted the 21-month study. Findings were based on simulated exercises, field surveys, and interviews with law enforcement, livestock producers, meat packers, truckers, feedlot managers, researchers, politicians, and animal health officials.

Of course, agroterrorism is not meant to be an act of violence against livestock but an attack on the economic stability of the United States. The study funded by NIJ identified five groups that could pose threats to our agricultural industry:

International terrorists. (Although many animal diseases have been eradicated in this country, they flourish overseas. The foot-and-mouth virus is easily accessed, transported, and transmitted.)
Domestic terrorists, including anarchist or antigovernment groups.
Militant animal rights groups.
Economic opportunists seeking financial gain as a result of a change in market prices.
Disgruntled employees seeking revenge.

Law Enforcement’s Role Post-Attack

How would law enforcement be expected to respond to agroterrorism? How would jurisdictional issues be overcome as local, State, and Federal authorities collaborate? Research by NIJ suggests some preliminary best practices.

The first priority of a law enforcement agency would be to establish and enforce a strict quarantine around the affected area. In the case of foot-and-mouth disease, the quarantine would cover a 6-mile radius, 113 square miles, from the point of virus introduction. Experts say that the quarantine would have to be enforced for at least 30 days.

The second priority likely would be State-wide roadblocks to help contain the disease. Local law enforcement, working with the State highway patrol, would stop vehicles at every roadblock. Vehicles that have had contact with livestock would be sent back to their point of origin, and that site would have to be tested for the virus. Other vehicles would be diverted for testing on the spot. Some semitrailers may be allowed to detach the trailer—which would be held for testing—while the cab is decontaminated. Passenger cars would be stopped and the drivers interviewed to determine whether they have traveled through a contaminated area. If they have, the car and the passengers would have to be decontaminated to minimize the risk of transmission.

Law enforcement also would be responsible for primary crime-scene investigation, including collection of tissue from infected animals and an attempt to identify suspects. If not established before the incident, the roles of local, State, and Federal officials would have to be quickly agreed upon. All cloven-hoofed animals—domestic and wild—within the affected area would have to be destroyed and disposed of.
Preventing an Attack

Every level of the food chain is vulnerable: farms, feedlots, chemical storage facilities, meatpacking plants, and distribution operations. Because terrorists rely on a lack of preparedness, law enforcement agencies should develop a plan to prevent agroterrorism and to minimize the results of an attack.

Special FBI Agent David Cudmore says, “Identifying threats of agroterrorism and stopping them before they happen are obviously vital roles for law enforcement.” Cudmore, a weapons of mass destruction coordinator, adds, “But protecting the Nation’s agricultural industry will take combined efforts of the agriculture industry, government, law enforcement, and academic and scientific communities working together to minimize both the likelihood of an attack and the severity of its impact.”

Local law enforcement should gather intelligence, for example, by working with livestock producers to identify vulnerable farms and feedlots. Partnerships—the best way to prevent an occurrence of agroterrorism and the only way to contain one—must be created among the local sheriff and farmers, ranchers, meatpackers, truckers, feedlot owners, and other critical members of the food-supply chain in the jurisdiction. Meetings with local chapters of livestock associations and other industry groups can encourage the exchange of ideas. Also, local law enforcement must establish a working relationship with veterinarians and animal and plant health inspectors.

Ron Snyder, program director of AgTerror Emergency Responder Training, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, says, “Because law enforcement officials perform critical functions in an agriculture emergency, it is vitally important that they become knowledgeable in all aspects of this unique type of emergency response. State and local officers are responsible for the establishment and oversight of quarantine areas to control the further spread of disease and maintain order as the response efforts unfold.”

In our post-9/11 world, the sharing of information among law enforcement agencies is more important than ever. State and Federal intelligence-gathering groups must collaborate to provide local law enforcement with the information it needs to deal with suspected terrorists. When it learns of a potential threat, for example, the FBI contacts the sheriff in that area. The FBI is also in the process of training experts—a rapid response team with criminologists and epidemiologists. However, local officials should also keep up-to-date on threats of bioterrorism. The World Organization for Animal Health, for example, coordinates information on animal diseases. (See www.oie.int/eng/en_index.htm.)

NIJ does not exercise control over external Web sites. Read our Exit Notice.

Cudmore says, “Seeing, hearing, and reporting are critical steps to gathering the intelligence that would hopefully prevent an attack. There are five countermeasures that are recommended to prevent this type of threat to our economic infrastructure: intelligence, surveillance, rapid diagnosis capabilities, rapid incident response, and training.”

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security maintains information on potential terrorist threats. The FBI runs the Terrorism Threat Investigation Center, where names and license information can be checked. Local law enforcement agencies have access to both databases. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a number of programs that concentrate on identifying foreign animal diseases. Nationally recognized experts can also help local law enforcement agencies create a prevention and response plan. Undersheriff James Lane, of the Ford County Sheriff’s Department in Kansas, often visits local law enforcement agencies to work with their response teams.

Several colleges around the country offer training to improve law enforcement’s ability to respond to agroterrorism. Resources are available from the federal government—especially the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security—to help local agencies with training. For example, Homeland Security, working with Iowa’s Kirkwood Community College, has developed the first accredited course for law enforcement officers and other first responders to prepare them for agroterrorism. The course is available at https://www.agpreparedness.org. Kirkwood also offers a “train-the-trainer” program on foreign animal diseases.

The FBI hosts an international gathering of law enforcement officials, scientists, academics, and agricultural professionals to discuss intelligence sharing and agroterrorism.

The National Institute of Justice sponsored the Terrorism Research Symposium on June 12-13, 2006, which covered a wide range of research on antiterrorism.

The paradigm for protecting the Nation changed after 9/11, focusing attention on all aspects of infrastructure that require greater security. Preventing an agroterrorism attack will require a concerted, coordinated effort by all levels of law enforcement. The National Institute of Justice is committed to helping sheriffs and other local law enforcement first responders develop a prevention plan and a response plan to mitigate the impact of agroterrorism.

NCJ 218265
[1] USDA, Economic Impact of a Foreign Animal Disease (FAD) Outbreak Across the United States, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, DC: 2004.
[2] Knowles, T., J. Lane, G. Bayens, N. Speer, J. Jaax, D. Carter, and A. Bannister, Defining Law Enforcement’s Role in Protecting American Agriculture from Agroterrorism, final report submitted to the National Institute of Justice, Washington, DC: 2005 (NCJ 212280), available at www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/212280.pdf.
National Institute of Justice: The Research, Development, and Evaluation Agency of the U.S. Department of Justice

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The 40th Anniversary of the Crime Report

Study Reveals Unique Issues Faced by Deaf Victims of Sexual Assault

LAPD Chief Bratton Speaks Out: What’s Wrong With Criminal Justice Research—and How to Make It Right

Factories Behind Fences: Do Prison ‘Real Work’ Programs Work?

Agroterrorism—Why We’re Not Ready: A Look at the Role of Law Enforcement

Helping Inmates Obtain Federal Medical Benefits Postrelease

PDF Version
Photo 1: A man operating a piece of machinery. Photo 2: The top of a prison fence.

NIJ Journal No. 257 • June 2007
Factories Behind Fences: Do Prison ‘Real Work’ Programs Work?

By Marilyn C. Moses and Cindy J. Smith, Ph.D.

About the Authors
Ms. Moses is a social science analyst at the National Institute of Justice. Dr. Smith is the chief of NIJ’s International Center.

When someone is in prison, does having a real job with real pay yield benefits when he or she is released? Findings from an evaluation funded by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) suggest that this might be the case.

Offenders who worked for private companies while imprisoned obtained employment more quickly, maintained employment longer, and had lower recidivism rates than those who worked in traditional correctional industries or were involved in “other-than-work” (OTW) activities.

“Factories behind fences” is not a new idea. Traditional industries (TI)—in which offenders are supervised by corrections staff and work for a modest sum—have been a mainstay of corrections for more than 150 years. Examples of traditional industries include the manufacture of signs, furniture, and garments, as well as the stereotypical license plates. By obtaining work experience in these industries, inmates acquire the skills they need to secure gainful employment upon release and avoid recidivism.

Another program—the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP)—allows inmates to work for a private employer in a “free world” occupation and earn the prevailing wage. Created by Congress in 1979, PIECP encourages State and local correctional agencies to form partnerships with private companies to give inmates real work opportunities.[1] Over the years, PIECP operations have included the manufacture of aluminum screens and windows for Solar Industries, Inc.; circuit boards for Joint Venture Electronics; street sweeper brushes for United Rotary Brush Corporation; corrugated boxes for PRIDE Box; gloves for Hawkeye Glove Manufacturing, Inc.; and the manufacture and refurbishment of Shelby Cobra automobiles for Shelby American Management Co. Other PIECP operations include alfalfa production for Five Dot Land and Cattle Company; papaya packing for Tropical Hawaiian Products; potato processing for Floyd Wilcox & Sons; and boat-building for Misty Harbor.

PIECP seeks to:

Generate products and services that enable prisoners to make a contribution to society, offset the cost of incarceration, support family members, and compensate crime victims.
Reduce prison idleness, increase inmate job skills, and improve the prospects for prisoners’ successful transition to the community upon release.

More than 70,000 inmates—an average of 2,500 per year—have participated in PIECP since the program’s inception. By the end of 2005, 6,555 offenders were employed in the program. Although this number reflects a 285 percent increase in PIECP positions in the past decade, it represents only a small fraction of the total number of inmates in our Nation’s State prisons and local jails.
Does the Program Work?

In a sense, PIECP can be thought of as a grand experiment. After 28 years, the obvious question is: Does it work?

To find out, NIJ teamed with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance to fund the first national evaluation of PIECP. Researchers at the University of Baltimore compared a group of postrelease inmates who worked in PIECP with inmates from two other groups—those who worked in TI and those involved in OTW activities, including idleness.[2] Cindy J. Smith, Ph.D., one of the authors of this article, was part of that research team. Then at the University of Baltimore, Smith and her colleagues considered two questions:

Does PIECP participation increase postrelease employment more than work in TI and OTW programs?
Does PIECP participation reduce recidivism more than work in TI or OTW programs?

Although the findings are not conclusive, they are positive. (See sidebar, “A Word of Caution: Selection Bias.”) Researchers found that, after they were released, PIECP participants found jobs more quickly and held them longer than did their counterparts in the TI and OTW groups. Approximately 55 percent of PIECP workers obtained employment within the first quarter after release. Only 40 percent of their counterparts found employment within that time.

Nearly 49 percent of PIECP participants were employed continuously for more than 1 year, whereas 40.4 percent of the offenders in TI and 38.5 percent of the offenders in OTW programs were continuously employed for that length of time.

Three years out, PIECP participants performed better than releasees from the TI or OTW groups. Almost 14 percent of PIECP releasees were employed for 3 continuous years, but only 10.3 percent of the other offenders maintained constant employment for that same period of time. (See chart, “Length of Continuous Employment Postrelease.”)

Examining wages earned by the participants after they were released, the researchers found that the PIECP group earned more than the TI and OTW groups. Of all the releasees, however, 55 percent did not earn wages equal to a full-time job at the Federal minimum wage. Because the data available to the researchers reported total earnings only and not the number of hours worked, it was impossible to determine whether this was because the releasees were: (1) working part-time, (2) working intermittently, or (3) earning less than the Federal minimum wage.

The researchers measured recidivism rates for all three groups using the traditional yardsticks: new arrest, conviction, and incarceration.[3] The results showed that PIECP releasees had lower rates of rearrest, conviction, and incarceration than offenders who were in the TI or the OTW groups.

At the end of the first year postrelease, 82 percent of PIECP participants were arrest free. The average amount of time from release to first arrest for PIECP participants was approximately 993 days (slightly less than 3 years). At 1 year postrelease, offenders in the TI and OTW groups remained arrest free at approximately the same rate (77 percent and 76 percent, respectively) as PIECP participants. By 3 years out, however, the arrest-free rates for all three groups declined to 60 percent for the PIECP participants and 52 percent for offenders in the TI and OTW programs.

Looking at conviction and reincarceration rates, the researchers found that 77 percent of PIECP participants were conviction free during the followup periods, compared to 73 percent of the OTW group. Ninety-three percent of PIECP participants remained incarceration free during the followup periods, compared to 89 percent of the OTW participants.
Inmate PIECP Wages

Wages earned by PIECP participants in prison benefit taxpayers in addition to helping the inmates themselves. Although the program requires a percentage of PIECP wages to be saved to assist the inmate when he is released, the remaining wages make their way back into the national economy, either directly or indirectly. A significant portion of the wages earned by prisoners in the program, for example, goes directly to the State to cover the cost of prisoner room and board. PIECP wages also provide child support and alimony to family members, as well as restitution to crime victims. (See chart, “Distribution of PIECP Wages.”)
An Underutilized Rehabilitation Option?

The research suggests that PIECP has been successful. Inmate PIECP wages benefit inmates, taxpayers, victims, families, and States. PIECP participants also acquire postrelease jobs more quickly, retain these jobs longer, and return to the criminal justice system less frequently and at a lower rate than inmates who worked in traditional industries or engaged in other-than-work activities. These findings suggest that PIECP is an underutilized rehabilitation option and that additional efforts to increase the number of PIECP jobs could have an important impact on the Nation’s prison and jail populations.

NCJ 218264

Length of Continuous Employment Postrelease
Length of Employment Percent of PIECP Group Percent of Traditional Industries Group Percent of Other-Than-Work Group
1 year+ 48.6 40.4 38.5
3 years+ 13.7 10.3 10.3

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Distribution of PIECP Wages

Figure: Distribution of PIECP Wages (Click to view full-size image)

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Although the results of the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP) study are positive—showing better outcomes for participants in the PIECP group compared to the traditional industries (TI) and the other-than-work (OTW) groups—they do not definitively show that the better outcomes were due to PIECP itself. This is because the participants in the three groups were not randomly assigned to the groups, a process that ensures that the differences in results are due to the program, rather than to preexisting differences among the participants.

How then were participants in this study assigned to the different groups? First, prisoners volunteered to participate in a work program. They were then interviewed by prospective employers in both the TI program and PIECP. Therefore, inmates who worked in either the TI program or PIECP were “self-selected” and may have had different motivations and backgrounds than the OTW inmates, the third group studied, which may have led to better outcomes. This concern, known as selection bias, can be definitively ruled out only by random assignment to groups that are going to be compared. In this study, selection bias seems a larger concern when comparing the volunteers (that is, PIECP and TI participants) to the non-volunteers (the OTW group) than in comparing the results of the two employment (PIECP and TI) groups.

The researchers in this study attempted to ensure that the groups were comparable by matching inmates in the three groups using a number of factors, including demographics and time served. Nevertheless, this matching may not have completely eliminated the selection bias. Therefore, the results should be interpreted with caution.

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For More Information

Smith, C.J., J. Bechtel, A. Patrick, R.R. Smith, and L. Wilson-Gentry, Correctional Industries Preparing Inmates for Re-entry: Recidivism and Post-release Employment, final report submitted to the National Institute of Justice, Washington, DC: June 2006 (NCJ 214608), available at www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/214608.pdf.
Petersik,T., T. Nayak, and M.K. Foreman, Identifying Beneficiaries of PIE Inmate Incomes, The National Correctional Industries Association, July 31, 2003.

[1] With the exception of PIECP, U.S. jail and prison inmates are prohibited, under the Amhurst-Sumners Act of 1935, from producing goods for sale in open interstate commercial markets; PIECP-certified programs are exempt from the $10,000 limit on the sale of prisoner-made goods to the Federal Government.
[2] The sample size included 6,464 inmates, with subjects nearly equally divided among groups. The sample included offenders released from 46 prisons in 5 States that implemented PIECP from January 1, 1996, to June 30, 2001. The followup period began on the day the inmate was released and ranged from slightly under 2 years to 7.5 years.
[3] Technical violations were not considered new arrests.