Prison Industries serves its mission

The Gazette Opinion Staff
Published: March 25 2014 | 12:01 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 10:07 am in

Gazette Editorial

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The annual report on Iowa’s Prison Industries is titled “Building Bridges to Success.” The numbers bear out the effectiveness of this rehabilitation program for inmates.

That’s also why we’re wary of recent legislative efforts to reduce the program’s authority because of complaints from the private business sector.

Prison Industries’ 500-plus inmates produce items ranging from furniture to signs to graphic arts services, which are sold to state agencies and not-for-profits. By state law, state agencies are required to buy from Prison Industries except for emergency situations or if the contract involves less than $10,000. Agencies also can ask for a wavier of the requirement; none has been rejected in five years.

In recent years, Prison Industries has averaged about $20 million a year in annual sales and returned more than $1 million a year to the state’s general fund.

The primary goal, however, is to help inmates develop marketable skills. About 90 percent of the prison population will return to society some day, and those who have worked in Prison Industries have a recidivism rate of just 4.9 percent, compared to 35 percent among those who haven’t.

Some critics say the program is unfair to private businesses. After all, the inmates are paid less than $1 an hour for their work and the mandate locks out most private bidding.

But we think the overriding issue is rehabilitation. Prisons should not just be warehouses for offenders. Programs that teach skills and a work ethic that help inmates succeed in the outside world are good for society overall. And Prison Industries doesn’t add to taxpayer cost; it’s self-sufficient. After release, most inmates become community contributors, not recurring, expensive problems.

Prison officials also point out that prisoners in the program are much less likely to cause trouble while serving their time, requiring less supervision and expense. About 80 percent of their pay goes toward restitution to their victims, income taxes or child support owed.

Any changes in the Prison Industries program should be made to improve, not weaken it.

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