One overlooked side effect of Wisconsin's unions vs. Republicans battle may be new opportunities for prisoners to learn skills that make them job-ready upon release from jail, instead of merely spending their time making license plates.
Until now, in many states, union officials have used their clout to keep inmates from producing any goods or services that could compete with the work of their members. In 1935, at the height of New Deal labor union power, Congress passed the Ashurt-Sumners Act that banned interstate transport of products made by prison labor. Two years later the Supreme Court declared the act constitutional in a case involving Kentucky prisoners who made horse collars.
Congress in 1979 created the Prison Industry Enhancement (PIE) Certification Program with the goal of encouraging states to create prison employment opportunities that help inmates "acquire marketable skills to increase their potential for successful rehabilitation and meaningful employment on release." Little has changed, though: One ex-inmate my church was trying to help had spent about 30 years in prison. During his last few years, anticipating release, he had tried to learn some skill that would make him employable. He was thwarted at every turn.
This month brings new hope. Under measures that went into effect on July 1, Wisconsin inmates are able to gain experience in landscaping, painting, and other work. The Journal Times(Racine, Wis.) quoted Racine County Executive Jim Ladwig's pithy view that "We have a win-win when we use the inmates"-they do useful work and they "help the county maintain property that has been neglected."
Inmates who do this work could receive reduced sentences. That wasn't possible before because union officials said sentence reduction was "compensation," according to Ladwig, who said the use of inmates would not result in any public works staff reductions. But, if this trend grows, taxpayers will benefit by not having to hire some new employees, and inmates will learn marketable skills.