Gone may be the days of the traditional chain gang, dust and pick-axes a la Cool Hand Luke, but Ohio’s incarcerated aren’t out of work options to fill their jailhouse hours. In fact, the state has an entire branch of the prison system devoted to Big House-based capitalism, an enterprise that reaches beyond the usual license plate stamping. The question is whether or not it’s worth it, dollars-and-cents wise.
The Columbus Dispatch has an article that looks into Ohio Penal Industries, the part of the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction responsible for running the in-prison shops that produce various and sundry items, from brooms and office binders to dentures and hand soap and toilet paper. That’s right, fake chompers courtesy of the convicted.
The problem with these products is the pricing. According to the article, Penal Industries’ offerings are sometimes above the market price. For example, a case of felon-pressed toilet paper goes for $48.96, whereas a private company can fill the same order at $41.33. Trash bags cooked up in the Big House sell at $13.39 a box, an order outside companies can do at $7.30.
Despite the potential better buys elsewhere, state agencies are handcuffed to buying agreements with Ohio Penal Industries, the report says. The state is working to make the pricing more competitive, but right now an agency has to contort through considerable loop holes in order to buy from other providers.
At a time when state agencies are hunting for any wiggle room in the budget, there’s likely pressure to toss out those agreements for the market-best. The other side of the argument holds that this program trains inmates in job skills, a necessary part to a successful return to society. A rock and a hard place, as they say.