Op-Ed: Investing in NJ’s Prison Labor Programs Is Investing in the Future

Adam Sternbach | July 25, 2017 | Opinion
These programs are not just a way to get cheap goods, they are unique opportunities to economically empower underserved populations

Adam Sternbach
As New Jersey continues to focus on ways to protect vulnerable populations during the Trump administration, there is one group that deserves immediate attention and support: prison inmates working as part of New Jersey’s prison labor industrial programs.

New Jersey’s use of prison labor industrial programs must be reformed and modernized to prepare inmates for effective societal reintegration.  New Jersey can accomplish this by increasing wages and beginning to measure how effective its programs are at achieving their stated goals — cost savings, job training, and reduced recidivism.

Every year, approximately 2,865 inmates in New Jersey’s prison system participate in two separate prison labor programs. The Bureau of State Use Industries (known as DEPTCOR) and the Bureau of State Farm Industries (known as AgriIndustries) provide finished goods to governmental entities. Both programs are self-sustaining and receive no annual appropriation.

DEPTCOR has approximately $14.25 million in sales per year and supports 850 jobs, which are divided among 2,400 inmates. DEPTCOR’s product lineup includes apparel and textiles, bedding, graphics, and furniture refinishing.  DEPTCOR has recently been used to aid in the controversial $300 million statehouse renovation.

AgriIndustries operates six farms and three food-processing plants. These plants support 100 jobs, which are divided amongst 465 inmates each year. AgriIndustries generates approximately $11.5 million in revenue annually and supplies meat, produce, and dairy items to several governmental entities.

Helping prisoners learn skills

DEPTCOR and AgriIndustries aim to save New Jersey and its citizens’ money while helping inmates develop professional skills that can be used to find employment upon release. The use of prison labor industrial programs allows New Jersey to realize cost savings because governmental entities are able to purchase finished goods at a discount.  Moreover, preparing inmates for employment upon release is viewed as a means to engage inmates, reduce recidivism, and lessen the number of people involved with the criminal justice system.

While many of these goals are laudable, attention needs to be given to the means by which the cost savings are achieved. Inmates working in DEPTCOR and AgriIndustries are paid exploitative wages ranging from $0.38 per hour to $10 per day.  This fails to respect the work inmates perform and takes unfair advantage of their labor.

An audit from 1997, the last time the prison labor program was fully reviewed, determined the wage scale for DEPTCOR and AgriIndustries was fundamentally unfair.  The exploitative wages paid to inmates working in these positions must be increased to account for the added skill and labor required by these jobs. As it stands right now, New Jersey’s cost savings are being achieved by exploiting its inmate population.  This is shameful by any measure and must be remedied.

Aside from the moral imperative of respecting inmates’ labor, higher wages will have numerous social, economic, and financial benefits for the state. Inmates will be more engaged in their work, resulting in greater productivity and reduced turnover for DEPTCOR and AgriIndustries. Increased wages will allow inmates to leave prison on a more secure financial footing with marketable skills that can be used to find a job, housing, and supportive community, all of which aid in reducing recidivism. New Jersey will also benefit as inmates are able to pay judicially imposed fines, court fees, and provide support for dependents.

Meeting goals

In addition to increasing wages, New Jersey must begin measuring whether DEPTCOR and AgriIndustries are achieving their stated goals. A 2012 state audit of the Department of Corrections Central Office found neither program was measuring whether it was actually saving money, preparing inmates for societal reintegration, or reducing recidivism.

Instead of measuring program success based primarily on cost savings, New Jersey needs to take a more holistic approach. How much money can reforming DEPTCOR and AgriIndustries save if inmates come out of prison with the financial and economic means to reintegrate and contribute to society? Are there opportunities to train inmates for in-demand jobs in the private sector, and perhaps, pair inmates with employment opportunities upon release?

Prison labor industrial programs in New Jersey need to be viewed as investments for the future. They are unique opportunities to economically empower underserved populations. They should not be viewed simply as a means for the state to buy inexpensive goods and they definitely should not achieve their savings through exploitative means. If this renewed approach is taken, DEPTCOR and AgriIndustries can serve as an engine of economic growth and empowerment for New Jersey and its most overlooked communities while respecting the hard work inmates perform on a daily basis.