In An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith wrote that a nation's prosperity depends upon "the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which its labour is generally applied," and upon the proportion of the population employed in useful labor. Economists watch measures of productivity and employment closely. The unemployment rate is today the single most prominent measure of economic health. By these basic criteria, the incarcerated, approximately 2.24 million able-bodied Americans, more idle prisoners than any other nation, constitute a gigantic drain on the economy. Very few prisoners produce marketable goods or services.4 Most inmate labor is simply "prison housework" (i.e. helping operate the correctional institution) or the making of selected goods for the government; only a small fraction of prisoners work in factories or on farms, ranches, or roads. Very low employment and productivity in federal and state prisons is invariably proven by dividing total annual correctional industry revenue by the particular prison population. Prison industries often operate at a loss and inefficiently utilize prison labor. What prisoners might be earning under full employment in the private sector equals or exceeds the direct costs of maintaining more than two million prisoners.
Gleissner, John Dewar
"How to Create American Manufacturing Jobs,"
Tennessee Journal of Law and Policy: Vol. 9
, Article 4.
Available at: http://trace.tennessee.edu/tjlp/vol9/iss3/4