Private companies would employ cheap prison labor and lease production or manufacturing space at three Alaska prisons under a proposal by the state Department of Corrections.
The idea is to have the private sector pay for the Alaska Correctional Industries program, which trains inmates and prepares them for jobs outside prison. The money from the leases is expected to pay for management and make the program self-sufficient, said Dawn Mattson, general manager of Alaska Correctional Industries.
The state put out advertisements last week announcing the initiative and asking for letters of interest from private businesses.
To attract companies, the department is offering to lease - at 60 percent the market rate - a combined 24,500 square feet of shop and office space on prison grounds in Fairbanks, Palmer and Kenai. Then there is the labor - the prisoners who make between 85 cents and $1.60 an hour.
"They're getting the benefit of a lower lease rate and a captured - not to use a pun - a captured work force," said Mattson said. "You don't have to worry about people showing up for work on time. They're going to be there. They're not going to be anywhere else."
The business would be responsible for repairs, utilities and maintenance. The department would provide the inmate labor and security.
Mattson and Corrections Commissioner Marc Antrim both said the private-public partnerships would provide rehabilitation to the prisoners at no cost to the state.
"The successful bidder will have access to a low-cost facility and a lower-cost work force," Antrim said. "If there is a player like Lowe's, Home Depot or Spenard Builders Supply, they should take a look at this."
But there are dangers in creating an atmosphere where it is profitable to keep people in prison, even if it is legal, said Kara Gotsch, public policy director for the ACLU National Prisoner Project in Washington, D.C.
"You don't want companies making profits off of prisoners. The potential for exploitation is too high," Gotsch said.
Gotsch said the ACLU believes in the usefulness of prisoner industries programs and said there aren't enough rehabilitation and educational programs in prisons today. But it's successful only if the inmates are adequately compensated and not used as dirt-cheap domestic labor, she said.
Under the federal Prison Industry Enhancement program, if products produced by prison labor are shipped across state lines, the company must pay the "prevailing wage," that is, what a worker normally would earn in the market. But if the product stays within state lines, the inmates can be paid their normal prison wages, Mattson said.
Both Antrim and Mattson dismissed the notion that contracting with a private company would be exploiting the state's prisoners. The program is for their benefit, Mattson said.
"We have to remember that the main idea here is rehabilitation. We want them to get the work skills," Mattson said. "It's empowering for the inmates to feel like they're earning a wage."
Another question is what the effect would be on competition and the labor market if the program is successful. For example, a company that wins a bid to make furniture at the Wildwood Correctional Center in Kenai could undercut its competitors on price with the money it saves on labor and overhead.
Antrim said that would be fleshed out when a bidder signs a memorandum of agreement. The goal is to benefit industry, not to compete with it, Mattson said.
Labor representatives from the AFL-CIO did not return a call to their offices on Monday.
State Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, is the House Finance Committee member in charge of the Department of Corrections' budget. He said private enterprise should be brought into the prison system, but not if it means competing in the labor market.
"As long as it can be competitive and not at the cost of existing industries," he said.