Benefits of Prison Reform

By · Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

 I received a wonderful article on an effective prison industries program that once operated in the Lansing State Correctional Facility in Lansing, Kansas. The article described a partnership between a private company and officials in the Kansas State prison system. The progressive program would work well in any prison setting, contributing to safer communities, safer prison systems, reduced costs of prison operation, and lower recidivism rates. It’s tragic that opposition for such programs comes from the lobbyists and unions who represent prison guards.

Professor Jana Craft from the business school at Saint Mary’s University in Minnesota sent me the article from the peer-reviewed Journal of International Business (Volume 2, Spring 2010). David Geenens, Director of Graduate Business Programs at Benedictine College wrote the article. He was an authority on the subject because prior to becoming an academic, Mr. Geenens ran the Impact Design business that operated inside the Kansas prison.

The article encouraged me because it showed the benefits that would come to so many facets of American society if prison systems worked in partnership with businesses and citizens in the private sector. Too many citizens in our country have distorted perceptions of the ever-growing subculture that proliferates inside of prison boundaries. Lobbyists who have vested interests in the growth of America’s prison system perpetuate such myths, but they come at the expense of the taxpayer. Our society now incarcerates more than 2.3 million people, and I’ve read reports suggesting that warehousing so many people costs taxpayers $75 billion each year.

David Geenens served as president of Impact Design, a private company that manufactured specialty sports apparel for college students. In an effort to meet demands of that changing marketplace, Mr. Geenens approached the officials at the state prison to inquire about the possibility of establishing a factory inside prison boundaries. The factory would offer prisoners opportunities to learn marketable skills and earn resources that would help them transition into society as law-abiding citizens.

Prison officials found authority for such partnerships with the private sector through Congressional legislation commonly known as the PIE Program (Prison Industry Enhancement certification program) that passed in 1979. In order to comply with the requirements of the PIE Program, Mr. Geenens’ company, Impact Design, paid the prisoners who accepted employment minimum wage or better. Impact Design made appropriate deductions from each prisoner’s gross wages. Those deductions served the interest of Kansas taxpayers by paying numerous taxes, contributing to crime victim compensation funds, offsetting each prisoner’s cost of confinement, and enabling prisoners who worked in the Impact Design plant with opportunities to build a savings account. The earnings prisoners saved could help them meet the expenses associated with reentry such as housing, clothing, food, and transportation costs necessary to find employment.

Prison guards (who like to be called correctional officers) resent progressive programs like Impact Design because they threaten the high recidivism rates that keep the prison system booming. If prisoners learn new skills and develop financial resources, they’re more likely to emerge from confinement as law-abiding citizens. Although such an outcome would be good for American citizens, it “threatens the security of prison institutions” in the same way that smoking-cessation programs threaten tobacco manufacturers. Expecting prison officials to enthusiastically support programs that lower recidivism rates would be akin to expecting tobacco companies to enthusiastically support programs that help people refrain from smoking.

If taxpayers could see the many ways that programs like the one Mr. Geenens spearheaded at the Kansas State Prison, more people would support prison reform. I’ll do my best to bring such programs to the attention of all Americans.

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