California is looking for businesses willing to hire criminals, and only criminals, by the thousands.

The new gang of factory workers won't have to commute. In fact, they'll be in big trouble if they try. And they won't be organizing unions, guzzling beer after work or chasing co-workers of the opposite sex.The jobs will be blue collar, literally - prison blue.

Pressed by a rising prison population and tight budget, California voters decided to encourage businesses to set up shop inside prisons and put inmates to work so they can contribute to their upkeep and gain valuable job skills.

If successful, it would be the largest such program in the nation.

Pay will be similar to what prisoners might make on the outside, but some of their earnings will be deducted to help defray the $2 billion annual cost of feeding and housing California's 98,000 state prisoners.

"Why should law-abiding citizens have to work and pay taxes to support a free ride for convicted criminals?" said Gov. George Deukmejian, who sponsored the ballot measure approved Nov. 6.

The state prison population has more than quadrupled during Deukmejian's two terms in office.

About 8,000 adults in state prison now make only minimal wages producing goods such as furniture and license plates. The products can be sold only to government agencies in order to limit competition with private industry.

A separate program employs about 100 juveniles in private businesses at California youth prisons.

Organizers of the new program for adult inmates hope to create 7,000 jobs with operations like recycling or clothing manufacture. Nationwide, about 1,500 prisoners work for private businesses, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

Craig Brown, undersecretary of the state Youth and Adult Correctional Agency, said inmates will scramble for the new "real world jobs" to make money and gain skills.

"Working in the prison kitchen probably doesn't provide you too much you can use on the outside," he said.

The California Manufacturers Association supports the program but wants to ensure it does not create unfair competition with the private sector, said president Bill Campbell.

"It's an exciting, innovative program and the manufacturing community will look upon it very favorably," he said.

Unions oppose the measure, arguing it will "turn back the clock of history to chain gang memories with controlled labor being exploited to the detriment of free labor," said John Henning of the California Labor Federation.

State officials said they will try to limit any competition by targeting emerging and labor-intensive industries. In a further safeguard, companies are barred from using prison labor to replace striking workers.

Brown said a task force setting up the program hopes to bring the first businesses into the men's and women's prisons sometime next year.

State analysts said they don't know how much the program will save because there are too many variables, but savings will come from diverting workers' pay to cover room and board, and from early releases earned with work credits.

Officials also hope the job skills learned will reduce the number of inmates who return to prison.

But the state also will lose some money by giving employers tax credits.

Task force member Kathy Kinser of the state Corrections Department said the program requires that inmates get paid at levels comparable to those on the outside.