Salt Lake County Commissioner Mike Stewart says he has a way to pay for prisons as well as help prisoners keep their families off welfare and pay restitution to victims.
Stewart's plan would turn prisoners' time into money by having inmates make such things as furniture or clothes that could be sold in the outside world.But Stewart, president of the National Association of Counties, admits there's a big problem: interstate commerce laws forbid inmate-produced goods from competing with private industry, and labor and business groups want to keep it that way.
Seeking to use the weight of his national-association title while in Washington for the group's winter meetings, Stewart is seeking congressional hearings to consider his idea. He lobbied Wayne Huggins, director of the National Institute of Corrections, who promised to testify at such hearings that he favors the proposal.
"We need to start dealing with the needs of people in jail, to help them pay for their incarceration, pay restitution to victims and to help them keep their families off welfare," Stewart said in an interview after the meeting.
For example, profits from inmate goods - such as garment production or the assemble of computer parts - could help fund needed jail expansion and upgrades in Salt Lake County, Stewart said.
He said Huggins also predicted the United States would have to open four 500-bed prisons and jails every week within a few years to keep up with growing criminal activity.
Stewart said such prison jobs could also help build self-esteem among prisoners and help them find good employment after their release.
Written statements from Stewart said that to help overcome labor-union opposition to his "real work for real pay" idea, he will ask that a portion of each inmate's paycheck go toward union dues.
Stewart admits he also faces opposition from businesses who want to ensure that prisoners will not become competitors.