Business behind Bars

Picture in your mind huge rolls of fabric, blocked out with patterns. Then imagine the fabric cut up like so many pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Imagine workers at sewing stations, stitching the pieces together into stylish coats and slacks. Now imagine all this happening not in a factory but in a prison. Because that's exactly where it is happening-in Monroe Correctional Institute outside Seattle, Washington. In addition to the garment section, the prison boasts a print shop and a wood-working shop where inmates make furniture. Employment in Monroe is voluntary-no slave labor here. And inmates receive wages competitive with the outside economy, which they can use to support their families and to pay restitution to the victims of their crimes. And when their sentences are up, the marketable skills inmates have gained become a passport to normal life. Prison industries have a long and respectable history in the United States. When our prison system was inaugurated two centuries ago, inmates worked to pay the cost of their upkeep. But at the turn of the century that tradition began to decline. Business and labor leaders complained that prison workers posed "unfair competition." By 1990 only 10 percent of inmates were gainfully employed. But this change has been a regressive one for our prisons. Enforced idleness eats away at the human spirit. In prison after prison, I have witnessed the apathy and despair that builds up in people who lie on their bunks and stare at the ceiling all day. Which is exactly what we should expect. After all, God Himself is creative: He worked six days to make the world. As creatures made in His image, human beings are meant to be creative workers, too. When denied an opportunity to fulfill that part of our nature, we are robbed of a sense of dignity and purpose. No wonder our prisons are simmering cauldrons of bitterness and rage. But it doesn't have to be that way. Monroe is putting inmates to work and restoring their sense of dignity. Some private industries work with prisoners, too, like Best Western Motels, which employs a couple hundred inmates as telephone reservationists. Control Data, a major electronics firm, has trained 150 Minnesota prisoners to assemble computers. In Florida, my friend Jack Eckerd started a prison industry program with the acronym PRIDE, which has overhauled several factories where inmates learn job skills. The economics of crime make a compelling case for prison industries. Let's face it: America is not wealthy enough to let offenders sit idly at taxpayers' expense. Neither can we afford to send inmates back into the world without marketable skills. Currently, two-thirds of offenders are re-arrested within a few years of their release. But a recent study by the Federal Bureau of Prisons found that inmates who had participated in prison work programs were better able to hold jobs and less likely to commit more crimes. So why not talk with your state representative about the need for prison industries? With a little lobbying by Christians, we might just get the Marriott and Holiday Inn to join Best Western in putting their business . . . behind bars.


Chuck Colson


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