In "Factories Behind Bars," a recently released National Center for Policy Analysis study, Morgan O. Reynolds makes the case for letting more prisoners voluntarily work while behind bars. Reynolds, an economist at Texas A&M, argues that greater employment opportunities for prisoners–especially with private firms–would help offset incarceration costs, improve prisoners' quality of life, and make them less likely to end up back in jail.
Currently, due to various state and federal laws that restrict the use of inmate labor, only 44 percent of prisoners work at all, and they almost always do so part-time for no pay in state-run make-work programs.
Reynolds estimates full-time prison workers making the "feasible" wage of $5 an hour would be able to pay about $6,000 a year out of their earnings toward their own costs, significantly reducing taxpayer burdens. As important, Reynolds documents that "prisoners overwhelmingly prefer work to the tedium of prison life"–indeed, there are always long waiting lists for any employment opportunities–and that working inmates behave better both in jail and after.