Recidivism is bad. Rehabilitation is good. A civilized society strives, at least in principle, to offer people who have been incarcerated an opportunity to rebuild their lives and return to society as productive citizens. That is, or at least once was, the driving force behind establishing a wide variety of educational and jobs programs in prisons. Industries inside the nation's prisons have become a nearly $2 billion business, says Rich Cholodofsky in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

At the federal level alone, Federal Prison Industries Inc. (FPI) employs almost 20,000 inmates in 102 "factories with fences," a term coined by the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger. FPI is a wholly-owned government corporation established by Congress on June 23, 1934. It manufactures clothing and other textile products, electrical and electronic components, vehicle components, office and dormitory furniture, traffic and safety signage, prescription and nonprescription eyeware, toner cartridges and the "traditional" license plates. FPI also sells services such as fleet management, call center and help desk support, and recycling. Net sales for fiscal year 2004 were $803 million, almost half the total for prison industries in the United States.

According to the National Correction Industries Association (Baltimore) all 50 states and numerous city and county jails operate correctional industry programs, in addition to the federal government. These programs provide real-world work experience to inmates, teaching them transferable job skills and a work ethic to help them prepare for re-entry into society and employment.

There is no shortage of disagreement with the efficacy of these programs; indeed, some refer to prison factories as capitalist punishment. Cholodofsky cites examples of companies making products ranging from flags to furniture that claim they can no longer compete with prison industries, largely because of the low-cost labor. He points out that much of the debate centers on whether inmate labor used for profit is an economic or social issue.

This is a touchy subject. But, like it or not, prison industries are part of our society and, as such, are not entirely separable from the rest of society. We sympathize with manufacturers that have to compete with prison labor, but IF these programs do cut recidivism, it's hard to argue against the long-term benefit to society.

The real questions are whether teaching inmates useful skills really cuts recidivism, and whether it's unfair for law-abiding hard-working citizens to lose business to people who've taken "the easy way out," especially when the law-abiding citizens are paying taxes to cover their room and board in the prison factories!

If you've been competing against these "factories with fences" in the marketplace, and would be willing to share your thoughts with us, please let me know; you can reach me at