Company Outsources to Prisons Over India
Associated Press
February 25, 2004

ONTARIO: Chris Harry is a model employee for the US call centre industry. The 25-year-old arrives promptly at his cubicle, speaks courteously on the phone and is never late or absent.

He plans to stick with his job for three years, a boon in an industry plagued by high turnover. And he gladly works for money many Americans would scoff at -- $130 or so a month.

After all, he could be back swabbing cell block floors for a third of that.

"I can't complain about fair," said Harry, who was sentenced to 10 years and eight months for robbery. "I did a crime and I'm in prison. At least I'm not wearing a ball and chain."

Prison inmates like Harry are the reason Perry Johnson Inc., a Southfield, Michigan-based consulting company, chose to remain in the United States rather than join a host of telemarketing companies moving offshore.

Johnson had intended to move to India. But the company chose instead to open inside the Snake River Correctional Institution, a sprawling razor wire and cinder block state penitentiary a few miles west of the Idaho line.

The centre's opening followed a yearlong effort by the Oregon Department of Corrections to recruit businesses that would otherwise move offshore, and echoes a national trend among state and federal prisons to recruit such companies.

"This is a niche where the prison industry could really help the US economy," said Robert Killgore, director of Inside Oregon Enterprises, the quasi-state agency that recruits for-profit business to prisons.

"I'm really excited about this," he said. "We keep the benefits here in the United States with companies where it's fruitless to compete on the outside."

Prison officials have long praised work programmes for lowering recidivism and teaching inmates skills and self-respect, yet have been criticised by unions for taking jobs from the private sector.

Those concerns are moot if a company planned to leave the country anyway, Killgore said. National prison labour trade groups support the idea.

Ten states including Oregon employ inmates in for-profit call centres. Oregon and many others also make garments and furniture -- industries that have largely moved offshore, other than in prisons. Inmates are paid between 12 cents and $5.69 an hour, according to Bureau of Prisons statistics.

Perry Johnson Inc. opened its call centre in an Oregon prison for half the price of relocating to India, and achieved many of the same benefits, according to Mike Reagan, director of Inside Oregon Enterprises at Snake River.

At Snake River, to qualify for the call centre job, inmates must have three to five years remaining on their sentence. Outside, the typical turnover is nine months.

Also, inmates make good telemarketers, prison officials said.

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