In this narrative I will discuss what prison work was like in Michigan when major prisons started becoming popular. I will also discuss the politics and profiteers behind prison employment. You will read about how politicians all the way up to the Governor of Michigan had a hand in the for profit prison system that profited politicians and big business in the state. You will read about the hobby craft store in the Jackson prison. This store was a unique way inmates were able to not only make money but also find something they were passionate about and learn skills they could take with them when they were released. Finally, at the end of the narrative, you will read about new programs in the Michigan prison system that are geared toward helping inmates learn technical skills that will help them find employment when they are released from prison.
From the start, powerful politicians in Michigan wanted to be able to use the prison system to make money. This money was to be used to pay for the prisons but also line the pockets of the politicians. This led to many practices and industries that employed cheap prison labor in order to turn a profit. Those running the prison systems not just in Michigan but also around the country believed that idleness in the prisons would be detrimental to the security of the prison and detrimental to the prisoners themselves. Prison labor was a way to solve this issue while also producing a profit.
A system of patronage was set up within the prison itself and in the outside world. Political connections granted outside business owner’s access to the cheap labor in return for payoffs to the prison management. Most inmates worked under a contract system, which was typical of American prisons in the 19th century. Prison workshops were opened to outside companies, which brought in machinery and raw materials for the inmates to work with.
A 1907 constitutional amendment allowed industries to use prison facilities as factories as long as they provided the machinery and the raw materials the industries could rent out the prison labor force and pay substantially lower wages than in the private sector. Warden Harry L. Hubert who served as warden of the prison during the 1920’s believed in prison labor and continually throughout his years as warden looked for any possibly industries to introduce to the prison. He wrote Governor Groesbeck, “I think we can put Michigan Prison Industries on the map so that when you leave the office the state will look up to you as doing something that no other governor ever did.” During Hubert’s time as Warden most inmates worked on the roads and helped build the new prison.
One of the first major jobs for prison inmates in Michigan, especially Jackson, was institutional construction. When Governor Groesbeck was elected, he wanted to launch massive projects to expand Michigan infrastructure. In Michigan, due to the exploding automotive industry housed in Detroit, roads and infrastructure were an upmost priority. By 1924, Michigan had completed more miles of road than any other state under a federal aid program that provided funds for states to expand their roads. Michigan was leading the country in the building of roads and Michigan was building roads much cheaper than other states because Michigan was taking advantage of its prison labor force to build roads, paying their labors 1/5th of the normal labor costs. During the 20s and early 30s, states were allowed to bid alongside private contractors and the low labor costs allowed them to underbid contractors in the private sector.
Governor Groesbeck appointed a prison commission to oversee the state’s prison system. The commission was made up of many influential business owners in the state. The appointees were able to serve their own interest by using the prison labor for their own companies. These appointees were crucial political alliances for Governor Groesbeck.
Inmate employment and Hobby Craft
Hobby craft was a huge industry for inmates in Jackson and it provided the inmates with a legitimate income and skills for when they returned to the outside world. The hobby craft goods were originally sold in the library but became so popular that a Hobby Craft sales store opened to meet the demand. Products included earrings, paintings, chests, chairs, purses, wallets, belts, and other goods. These goods were sold for up to one hundred and fifty dollars. Inmates were able to spend one hundred dollars on supplies a month, set their own prices, and keep ninety percent of their earnings with the remaining percentage going to the prison. In 1971, more than sixty thousand customers purchased almost ninety-five thousand dollars’ worth of goods from the hobby craft store. The store began to sell its products nationally in the seventies and this even led to prisoners securing contracts with outside vendors for their goods. Prisoners who dealt with leather goods could make up to two hundred dollars a month. Inmates that participated in this program also volunteered their time and some of their earnings to make hundreds of toys for needy and less fortunate kids in the Jackson community. In this program, inmates were either self-taught or taught by other inmates. They would research their craft and learn from experienced inmates and many used the skills they learned in this program as a way to gain employment in the outside world. 
Prisoner Employment Now
The vocational village at the Parnell facility in Jackson is attempting to provide legitimate opportunities for prisoners to learn real skills that they can use to get a good job once they leave prison and rejoin the free world. The Michigan Department of Corrections turned an unused warehouse on the prison grounds into the training center. At the vocational village, inmates are learning skills including masonry, concrete, robotics, carpentry, automotive repair, and how to drive semi-trucks and operate forklifts. Inmates must apply for this program and pass screenings for good behavior and conduct. They must also be within eighteen months of their release date. This new practice rather than exploiting inmate labor for profit is teaching the inmates skills that they will be able to use when they get out to be productive members of society. 
 Adrienne Eaton et al., “A History of Jackson Prison,” Winter 1975, file:///C:/Users/Zack%20Marcy/Downloads/History_of_Jackson_State_Prison_1920-197.pdf.
 “Peek Through Time: Prison’s Hobbycraft Sales Shop Turned Idle Inmates into Skilled Craftsmen | MLive.Com,” accessed November 6, 2018, https://www.mlive.com/news/jackson/index.ssf/2014/04/peek_through_time_prisons_hobb.html.
 “From Inmate to Employee: Inside New Prison Skilled Trades Program,” accessed November 6, 2018, https://www.wlns.com/news/from-inmate-to-employee-inside-new-prison-skilled-trades-program/999864174.