Factories with Fences: The Effect of Prison Industries on Female Inmates

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Richmond, Kerry Michele
Laub, John H
Over the past thirty years, the number of women incarcerated has risen significantly and increased attention has been paid to the needs of female offenders. One area that has been frequently overlooked in this discussion is the issue of employment and skills training. While female offenders, similar to men, often lack the education and work experience to be competitive in the labor market, little attention is paid to whether the correctional work programs currently in place are effective for this population. Prison industries programs are a unique type of work program in that inmates are not simply offered vocational training, but also gain direct work experience in a specific industry. Initially developed to reduce inmate idleness and offset correctional costs, this program is also thought to have rehabilitative purposes by increasing inmates' likelihood of employment upon release and thus reducing recidivism. However, existing evaluations of prison industries programs are limited and often plagued with serious methodological concerns. This study examines whether employment in the federal prison industries program, UNICOR, reduces institutional misconduct and recidivism among female inmates. The study also seeks to establish whether there is an additional benefit based on length of employment. Data from a large sample of female inmates released from the federal prison system between January 1993 and December 2003 are used to create a matched sample of UNICOR participants and non-participants. Selection bias is addressed through the use of propensity score matching. Survival analysis is utilized to examine whether UNICOR employment affects institutional behavior and recidivism outcomes over a follow-up period of up to 13 years. This study finds that the benefits received through this work assignment are limited to the prison environment. UNICOR participants are slightly less likely to engage in institutional misconduct, however no significant differences emerge in terms of rearrest or recommitment to federal prison. There is also only a slight effect based on length of employment. Implications for correctional programming and areas of future research, including whether prison industries can affect post-release employment outcomes and whether there may be a differential effect based on the type of industry employed, are discussed.