January 15, 2013; Source: Tallahassee Democrat

In Florida, a nonprofit that uses prison labor manufactures license plates and now confronts the state government that is looking to contract the work out to a private vendor. The nonprofit is Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises, Inc. (PRIDE), which the Tallahassee Democrat reports pays some prison inmates “up to 55 cents an hour” at the Union Correctional Institution at Raiford, Fla. to print and stamp out the plates. The state’s exploration of potential private vendors quickly turned up 3M, which has already cut a deal with the state of Indiana to do just-in-time production of plates there, leaving Indiana’s version of PRIDE, the Prison Enterprise Network, the function of putting the letters on vinyl sheets supplied by 3M while 3M does the actual production of the plates.

PRIDE was established by the state in 1981, and though it is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit according to its website, it is not required to file a Form 990 because it is, according to Guidestar, an arm of state government. License plates are hardly the only inmate-made products PRIDE helps generate. Its website also advertises office furniture, park furniture, traffic paint, cleaning supplies, full service printing, and much more. The Florida state government seems to think, like the government in Indiana, that contracting out to private vendors will save the state budget money, though the downside might be less opportunities for training inmates with skills that they can use to get jobs after their release. With resources generated by the prison enterprises, PRIDE provides reentry and transition services for inmates.

PRIDE’s annual report for 2011 gives a flavor of PRIDE’s production. That year, PRIDE had gross sales of approximately $63.1 million and costs of approximately $51 million. From the approximately $12.1 million gross margin on the sales, PRIDE’s operating expenses ran to about $11.1 million, leaving total income before program activities at $942,604. From that sum, PRIDE devoted $261,771 to inmate re-entry services, $331,774 to transition services, $231,951 to a crimes compensation fund, and $92,013 to a victim restitution fund. The license plate production may not be huge, but it counts both toward helping inmates learn employable skills and toward generating money for PRIDE program services.

Is it worth it for Florida’s state government to save a couple of million in license plate manufacturing by contracting with 3M or some other firm, or does the loss of revenue and program activity at PRIDE outweigh taxpayer savings? Or does the concept of paying inmates “up to 55 cents an hour” simply rub you the wrong way, even if the employee in question is someone who was convicted of breaking the law? If you’re in the latter crowd, is the small sum involved more tolerable if those involved are developing skills to help with post-prison employability?—Rick Cohen