The holidays are nearly over, but your state government remembered to renew its annual gift to Colorado taxpayers: furniture made by prisoners.
By law, all state agencies, from the Community College of Denver to the unemployment department, are required to buy office furniture from Colorado's homegrown sweatshops, otherwise known as the prisons.
Inmates at Colorado Correctional Industries (the fancy name for the prison work program) earn $1 to $7 a day assembling wooden desks, metal filing cabinets and bookshelves. And in addition to learning skills that they can later use for jobs on the outside, the prisoners, if they perform well, can earn production bonuses, says Department of Corrections spokeswoman Katherine Sanguinetti.
There's just one catch: Their products aren't sold to the public, and thus subject to pesky market rules like competition or supply and demand. They're sold back to the government at prices that would make your average Target shopper choke.
Say, $1,489 for a desk?
"I think it's expensive, myself," admits Judy Haugh, purchasing agent for the State Purchasing Office in Denver. "However, it's extremely durable."
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It had better be. According to the Correctional Industries website, a small bookshelf can cost $241, a filing cabinet $346. The prices are set in true bureaucratic fashion, according to Sanguinetti. An outside consumer group surveys the market and gives suggestions to a committee of representatives from state agencies, who then make a recommendation to the Correctional Industries board. Bargain prices can't be a top priority: If the board sets the price tags too low, it will only be hurting itself.
All profits are used to run the prison work program -- including materials, equipment, and salaries for the staff. (Besides building furniture, inmates work at a dairy farm and fisheries, process honey, make goat cheese, even sew clothes for their fellow prisoners.) Any excess profits go back into the state's general fund, Sanguinetti says.
If a state agency really wants to buy a bargain bookshelf from Office Depot, however, it can apply for a waiver to bypass the prison rule. But why bother? This holiday season, buy local, and decorate your office with Christmas cheer from the convict next door. -- Lisa Rab