When it comes to employing prisoners, making license plates or performing roadside cleanup typically come to mind as the kind of jobs given to those behind bars. In New York state, however, a select group of inmates are taking on a different role: over-the-phone customer service representatives for the Department of Motor Vehicles.
In this era of state-budget shortfalls that have resulted in layoffs of government employees, the decision to employ inmates in call-center jobs that could be done by those outside is raising ire.
The call centers, located at two prisons in the state, are expected to take about 1 million calls a year and save taxpayers about $3.5 million a year, according to DMV estimates.
"Obviously, it saves taxpayer dollars," Brian Fischer, the commissioner of corrections and community supervision, tells WNYT-TV. "Number two, it provides what we call a transferable skill."
State officials note that inmates receive extensive training and that the personal information of callers isn't shared, YNN reports. Conversations can also be monitored by civilians.
The call centers are situated within the Greene Correctional Facility upstate and the Bedford Hills women's prison in the Hudson Valley.
The call center positions are some of the most coveted jobs inside the prison, officials say. Not because of the pay -- the pay is the standard prison wage of 46 cents to $1.14 an hour -- but for other reasons.
"A lot of times we need to feel like we are appreciated and it builds self-esteem," inmate John Howard tells WNYT. "It allows me the opportunity to speak to different people of different nationalities, regardless of what ethnicity and it makes me feel like, 'Wow, I can do better.' "
Though the program provides prisoners with much-needed skills that can help inmates make a smoother transition to civilian life, others see a downside.
Danny Donohue, president of the union that represents state workers, says employing prisoners to do jobs that law-abiding citizens can do is "a bad idea," especially in light of the current economy and high unemployment.
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