Paying Michigan prisoners: Is it incentive or a waste of money?

Listen to Dan Armstrong discuss this topic on WHNN (96.1-FM) Monday morning.

Paying Michigan prisoners: Is it an incentive or a waste of money?

Opponents say it robs law-abiding taxpayers and rewards those who don't follow the law.

Supporters say it provides safer conditions and makes more economic and social sense.

Mopping floors, vacuuming, cleaning microwaves ... they're jobs janitorial businesses are paid to do.

But they're not the only ones getting paid to do it.

Michigan prisoners, who perform similar tasks also get paid, and it's costing Michigan taxpayers $11 million a year.

Republican State Representative from St. Joseph John Proos says, "An $11 million line item is a significant line item."

Proos, along with other Republican leaders, want to eliminate prisoner pay for one year to help balance Michigan's budget.

"I tell you, if it's between diverting money to the classroom for kid's education, or money that we would be spending in prisoner pay. I think we need to debate that," Proos says.

The Michigan Department of Corrections defends prisoner pay.

John Cordell, from the Michigan Department of Corrections, says "It's an incentive for them to get up every morning, get out of bed, establish a work ethic and do the things that you and I as citizens would do."

That incentive is low compared to wages for those not in the prison system.

The standard pay scale for an unskilled worker is $0.74 a day. On the high end, prisoners can make $3.34 a day.

NBC25 spoke with some corrections officers, who didn't want to appear on camera, who say paying prisoners is not fair.

They say they don't get paid for making their bed, washing their clothes, or serving food and neither should prisoners.

The DOC says paying prisoners saves money.

Cordell says, "Either we're going to pay for them to go to work and school, provide that incentive, get them structured with a good work ethic, or we're not going to pay them, they're going to become idle, and we're going to buy those things that they need anyway."

Opponents say, prisoners should be forced to perform tasks at no charge. But corrections officials say, it's not that easy. Laws would have to change. Also, corrections officials say, many of the maximum security prisoners can't work because they're dangerous. Others can't because they're living with disabilities or elderly.

However, the vast majority of prisoners work, go to school or both, and get paid.

In March, Michigan's unemployment rate was more than 14 percent. What about those behind bars doing time in state prisons? They're unemployment rate was less than 10 percent.

Political opponents of prisoner pay say it's more than just economic. Proos says, "I don't have enough information to know whether or not that is critical to the safety and security to the prison guards. I don't know that yet until we debate these issues."

Supporters say the discussion would be a waste of time.

"Incentivizing work and school activities within a prison system is really a no-brainer," Cordell said.

The money earned by prisoners can go to purchase extra goods from the prison store like food, toiletries and writing supplies. They can also buy items like clothes and shoes.

Coming Tuesday, May 4, on NBC25 News at 6, we'll take a look at a MidMichigan jail that does not pay its inmates and says it uses work itself as an incentive .