California prisoners, unlike law-abiding citizens, have a guaranteed market for the products they make behind bars: State agencies are required by law to buy them even if private workers can make them cheaper or better.
That monopoly is coming under fire as the state's shaky economy sparks widespread layoffs.
The sale of prison goods and services has grown into a $234 million annual industry. Many small-business owners say they can beat the Prison Industry Authority, potentially saving millions, and that taxpayers deserve open competition based on cost.
"Everything should be on a level playing field — and the winner takes the bid," said Scott Hauge, president of Small Business California.
Pending legislation supported by the California Chamber of Commerce, Assembly Bill 1771, would ease the mandate.
PIA officials say their prices are competitive and that savings also should be measured by success in reducing prison violence and keeping paroled felons from re-offending and being re-incarcerated at a cost of about $50,000 per year.
"There are lots of benefits beyond just, 'Can we go out and buy this stuff more cheaply?' " said Barry Krisberg, former president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.
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