Hard Labor Ltd.

Socks, bed linen, buses, benches, coffins, made by prisoners working for wages behind bars. Cynical exploitation of incarcerated inmates? Not at all: it's their chance at a new life after release, says the plan's progenitor.

It's noontime at a paper factory. Folding and stacking paper packages at a dizzying pace any machine would envy, the young Arab from the north - we'll call him A - seems possessed. Oblivious to the din of machinery and surrounding commotion, he carries on relentlessly at top speed and with accuracy. Each bag equals money and any mistake could cost him. Nearby are dozens of others, equally absorbed in their tasks.

J, a skullcap-wearing, middle-aged man of Russian extraction, has been sitting at a sewing machine in a small, adjacent textile plant since early morning, stitching together women's purses for a Tel Aviv designer. But the labels on the exclusive handbags won't say "Made in Ayalon Prison."

Sewing shop at Ayalon Prison Jan. 12, 2012 (Tomer Appelbaum)
Tomer Appelbaum

Not far away, G, a balding Arab in his 30s, feeds complex blueprints into a computerized wood-processing machine for an elaborate synagogue table. Explaining how the contraption works, he boasts of making desks for the offices of government ministers, high-ranking commanders and CEOs. Although he still has several years left attending this machine, he knows each day brings him closer to a guaranteed, top-paying job.

A, J and G are inmates at Ayalon Prison near Ramle, one of Israel's toughest lockups. One was convicted for assault, another for theft, and the third was involved with drugs. Ayalon houses murderers, thieves and sex offenders - convicts serving long sentences for violent crimes. Their everyday reality doesn't let them forget where they are but they make the best of it. With steady work and a small salary, they can save or send home. Most importantly, however, they don't languish in a cell all day going stir crazy.

A, J and G work for one of Israel's largest industrial concerns. The Ayalon industrial center, a complex of factories operating within the prison, employs 300 inmates at seven plants producing furniture, paper products, textiles and printing. This is just one of 17 complexes operated by Israel Prison Industries throughout the country, with 57 factories employing about 2,400 prisoners. Together they produce between 50,000 and 55,000 different items.

You use their products: Bed linen and pillows, shopping bags, government office furniture, workplace shelving, sleeping bags, computer sockets, bus components, socks, lifeguard stations, street benches, the reflective vests that every vehicle must have and the vests worn by policemen who will write you a ticket if you step out of your car on the highway without one. They also make coffins.

In contrast with commercial companies, IPI doesn't operate for profit. Its declared aim is to employ as many convicts as possible, rehabilitate them through work, provide them with a profession and work ethic, and return them to society as productive citizens.

Chinese competition

A little story on globalization: N, a deaf and blind Arab inmate at Rimonim Prison, assembles electronic components for sockets and other electrical accessories. He performs the job quickly and efficiently - the surrounding hubbub doesn't distract him. N is competing for his wages against a particularly tough and skilled enemy - the Chinese worker. If the electronics plant moves its production to China, the Chinese worker will win and N will be forced to go back to spending his days in a cell. The competitive market reality is the top consideration, says Nissim Kashi, head of employment at Israel Prison Service and CEO of IPI.

Employment of convicts isn't new to Israel, but only in the last decade has it begun taking the form of a full-blown business. "IPI already existed in the 1950s but was more like occupational therapy back then," says Kashi. "Prisoners made toys, backgammon boards and mops. When I took the job, there were 18 factories using antiquated technology. During my first year, the greatest challenge was bringing in quality equipment - buying computerized saws and advanced machinery." IPI is expected to reach NIS 40 million in income this year, he boasts, adding, "The value of products we make is approaching NIS 500 million."

In some cases IPI doesn't just make the products, it develops them too. "An entrepreneur brings an idea and we help develop it," says Kashi, who isn't particularly interested in patent rights. "My one condition is that the work is given to me."

Israel has about 20,000 prisoners. In addition to the 2,400 employed in IPI, about 3,000 do maintenance and cleaning work inside the prisons. "Only convicted felons who are Israeli residents are entitled to work," says Kashi. "Security prisoners and detainees are out of the picture. I'm not here to create a workforce for the Palestinian Authority."

Kashi runs his life in perpetual competition against Chinese, Turkish, Palestinian, Jordanian and Egyptian workers who could snatch his production jobs and force him to "fire" inmates. "The moment a convict enters the workforce the most important principle is continuity," he says. "So if there's no work in furniture I'll move convicts temporarily to textiles. It's hard sending a prisoner back to his cell."

To remain competitive Kashi makes sure to invest in the best equipment available, bring in professional engineers to manage his factories, and ensure all products conform to the ISO 9000 international standards of quality.

Two things differentiate this enterprise from other companies, Kashi claims. The first is that he won't compete with Israelis. "I see myself as complementing, not competing with, Israeli industry," he says. "If you're an entrepreneur without a factory or production capability, and it will cost you hundreds of thousands or millions of shekels to get started, give me a call. If you manage a company that makes some product and you want me to do part of the production, that's not a problem either. For many products we're just the third or fourth link in the production chain. But I won't take jobs away from Israelis."

The second difference is what he calls his winning card. "Our biggest advantage is having labor available on short notice," says Kashi. "If I get a contracting job requiring 60 workers and have enough at the production center I can switch them to that activity."

There are, of course, shortcomings. The workforce isn't the best quality - according to research, 70% of Israel's prisoners have learning disabilities, 60% suffer from attention disorders, 16% are illiterate, 50% were drug addicts and 60% were alcoholics. Building a factory in a prison is also a complicated undertaking, almost like building a whole new prison, explains Kashi. Ceilings and windows must be raised, and the rule that a door never opens until another is shut applies here too. The steel bars shutting them in, by the way, are produced by the prisoners themselves.

The advantages, though, are obvious: an extremely cheap workforce that can't unionize, strike or demand a raise; no vacations, no tardiness or missed days because of family emergencies. Still, Kashi rejects any implication of exploitation. "I manage a socialist industrial concern," he maintains. "A social enterprise - maximum workforce, on condition that I end up with a product that remains competitive. Not maximum profit, but maximum product at a competitive price, but also with maximum working hands. It's alright using three convicts to produce a table that can be made by two, as long as the price remains competitive."

Staying sane

Ask any inmate and he'll tell you the hardest thing in prison isn't the constant fear of violence or rape, wretched food, being locked in a cell, or loss of freedom. It's the routine. Work, say inmates, helps them keep their sanity.

"Without this work I'd go crazy," says Kfir, a Rimonim Prison inmate in his 30s and quality controller in the prison's Waisbord plant, a company that makes electrical products and accessories. Kfir makes sure components produced by his colleagues work. You would think he's an experienced supervisor, but he summarizes his experience vaguely: "I was self-employed a bit, and then salaried for a while."

"Work is the greatest privilege a prisoner has," says Kashi. The work area is much more pleasant than a cell, there is a monetary reward, and you have to remember that a prisoner entering the workforce is a normative prisoner who will get more consideration from the parole board.

"The work also restores their self-respect and their families' respect - he can send them money," Kashi continues. "He can also go before the parole board and say, 'I received education, acquired a profession, worked and proved I'm a serious individual,' and then they might have their sentence reduced by a third."

The workday, says Kashi, begins at 7:30 A.M. and ends around 3 P.M. in the winter and 4 P.M. in the summer. Returning to the cells takes a half hour because inmates are checked going in and coming out of the production center to make sure they're not carrying things like fretsaws.

Kashi cares mainly how the worker performs and is much less concerned about the reason he landed in prison. From time to time one of the guards will point out a prisoner absorbed in work and say, "He committed rape" or "He's a murderer." One enthusiastic worker proudly displaying the folder he made at the print shop in Ayalon Prison is serving a life sentence for killing his brother-in-law. The worker next to him, operating one of the large printing machines, was also convicted of murder.

"Do we have violent incidents? On the contrary," says Kashi. "There is constructive competition, because a good and productive inmate is an inmate wanted by the plant."

On entering a prison all preconceptions should be dropped at the iron gates. Forget shady deals, violent brawls and attacks in dark corners. Here, they have spacious coffee corners and well-lit smoking areas, and they share plenty of laughs during breaks.

Compensation is just part of the story, says Kashi. Inmates working for IPI don't receive minimum wage but rather a "reward" averaging NIS 13.70 per hour, or NIS 1,800 a month. This comes solely from the profits of IPI, which is economically self-sustaining, explains Kashi, stressing that prisoners aren't paid from taxpayers' money. Those performing maintenance work and other services within prisons also get rewarded, unlike in most other countries.

Industrial pay is tied to output and can range from NIS 5 to NIS 30 an hour. Inmates sometimes prefer skipping breaks to earn more.

"An inmate's output is obviously less than an outside worker's," Kashi admits. "Outside they work for a living, here for reward. I can't even send them to jail. They're already there."

But output is just part of the picture. "The job keeps their minds off crime or hurting others," explains Kashi. "After a full day of this work you just want to rest."

In many cases pay isn't even the main motivation. The real bonus is professional training. "A prisoner acquiring certification as a CNC system operator or aluminum welder - skills with immense demand these days in Israel - will leave here and immediately get snapped up at NIS 15,000 to NIS 20,000 a month," says Kashi. Many came to prison uneducated and with little or no experience in a trade. They leave with a vocation and certification as welders, carpenters or in other occupations - not to mention the pride that goes along with the achievement.

"I hope the prisoner saves his money and supports his family so he'll have a place to go back to, and his family understands he'll have a positive role," Kashi says. "It's better that an inmate leaves prison with enough to start his life than getting out without money and falling on you and me to support, going on welfare or doing break-ins to get cash."

As a means of rehabilitation the program works. According to an IPS study based on data from 2000, only 16% to 25% of inmates working in prison industries went back to prison, compared with a 45% to 50% re-incarceration rate for Israel's general prison population.

For some, employment also helps maintain their spirits and preserve their dignity until they're released. R, for example, a logistics manager outside, found his place as a quality controller at the Waisbord plant at Rimonim Prison. A soft-spoken, polite, courteous and good-humored older man, he is serving time after beating his family. Work has restored some of the self-esteem he lost when he arrived here.

"I simply picked up my suitcases and moved here," he jokes when asked about his job. "We distribute the work, obtain the raw materials, coordinate production, check that everything's running smoothly and pass the goods along for further processing. It's enjoyable because there's always something new. Even if you come thinking that today you'll do such and such, you might end up doing something completely different."

Wanted, on the outside

Alexei, in his early 20s, works alone welding a bus chassis at the Merkavim Transportation Technologies plant at Hasharon Prison. He's only been here for eight months but has already gained sufficient skill to be welding alone. He has three more years until his release.

Hasharon is a medium-security facility for felons needing protection, whether they're pedophiles or became outcasts for violating the code among criminals. "These are people whose families have forgotten them," says Meital Sharon, manager of the prison's industrial center. "Most don't have visitors. They have nothing outside. Many are junkies who, outside, only cared about their next fix and slept on cartons at bus terminals. We take care of all their needs and encourage them to work so they'll learn to be responsible with money and what a working routine is. We also have inmates who, even within prison, are in such danger they can't go out to work, so we set up a small production area inside."

Yaakov Feldman, Merkavim's plant manager, isn't interested in all that. "I just treat them like factory workers," says the tough, mustache-sporting, Russian engineer. "If I get them used to working in a factory for five years, when they leave they won't find it strange and will fit in."

Feldman is also responsible for the prisoners' vocational training. Under his guidance they become professional welders, some also becoming aluminum welders. Kashi is particularly proud of this. "Israel currently imports aluminum welders," he says with a huge grin. "When these guys get out into the market they'll be snapped up and earn a lot."

Feldman explains the key to training inmates in two words - patience and respect. "Plenty of patience is needed but you also need to give them respect, and they'll give it back," he says.

"I acquired a trade here," says Faad from the Jordan Valley, who has completed most of his seven-year sentence and expects to be released in nine months. He works in Hasharon Prison's woodworking factory and already has a job lined up as a carpenter when he leaves. He had no prior experience in this trade before being imprisoned.

H, however, insists on spoiling the idyllic picture. A welder in the Merkavim plant, he's been in and out of jail for 25 years. "I was born in prison," he jokes. "Israel Prison Service is printed on my identity card as 'father' and 'mother.'"

Kashi can barely control his rage when he sees him. "I've known him for 11 years and each time I see him I get terribly upset," he fumes. "This is one of the country's best welders and could earn a good living as a productive citizen. But every time he gets out he commits another felony, as if he's trying to get back in."

Meanwhile, in the U.S., Canada and Europe

It may be little consolation, but it turns out that in at least one field Israel is much more advanced than other countries - employing prisoners. Israel is near the top at rewarding inmates for working, after Sweden and Norway - where they enjoy high pay, vacations and union membership.

The United States has more than 2 million inmates - 25% of the world's prison population. Employment of prisoners there by private industry has flourished in recent years, and those working in jobs like shirt manufacturing, product assembly, making helmets and vests for the police and the military, and recycling electronic waste get a daily wage based on rank. The highest rank, attainable only with a high school diploma, entitles workers to $1.15 an hour. Part of the prisoners' pay goes, by law, to paying fines, compensating victims, alimony and toward other obligations.

The spreading use of prison labor by the private sector has led to allegations of exploitation and modern slavery. Meanwhile, factories in Texas and elsewhere have been laying off workers and moving operations to prisons to reduce overheads.

In Sweden and Norway, though, the world's most advanced incarceration systems offer convicts relatively high pay, regular time off and unions ensuring that their working conditions are reasonable. Prisoners employed in Swedish factories receive 10 krona per hour - despite the fact that the economic viability of the project remains unproven and that many companies have been running into trouble lately. Swedish inmates have been organized since 1966 when their union was formed. Much of their income is spent on room and board - they indeed pay rent - but they manage to put away a little too.

Some 4,000 inmates, about 15% of Canada's prison population, participate in the CORCAN employment program helping convicts reintegrate into society. In addition to vocational training, which includes operating forklifts, prisoners work in textiles, manufacturing, construction and services like printing and laundry. As in Israel, most of the products and services are marketed to government institutions. Turnover exceeds C$70 million and the inmates make between $5 and $7 a day.

In the past two years prisoner employment has been thriving in England and Wales too, while tabloids report that convicts are enjoying coddling conditions and suffer from boredom. Amid government attempts to encourage private enterprise to employ inmates, a conservative think tank suggested raising their pay and establishing a minimum wage of four pounds a week. Prisoners' pay, set separately by each prison, currently averages eight pounds a week. About 24,000 convicts in England and Wales carry out cleaning chores or work in printing, textiles and woodworking, with most of the output used by the prison system itself.

A scandal recently broke out in Scotland when it was learned that the government intended to double the pay of some of the inmates working in production, from 12 pounds to 24 pounds a week. Raising prisoner wages, just when the country is suffering from high unemployment, inflamed the Scots - who may have also have felt a twinge of envy.