Chris Gardner  /  AP file
An inmate checks the quality of a calendar being printed at the Maryland Department of Corrections in Jessup, Md., Sept. 6, 2006.
updated 11/27/2006 10:16:26 AM ET 2006-11-27T15:16:26

Internet shopping knows no boundaries, not even for products made behind bars. Maryland Correctional Enterprises, the manufacturing division of the state Division of Correction, has put its 182-page catalog online.

Now anyone can see, if not buy, hundreds of items the agency offers for sale to government agencies and Maryland nonprofit organizations.

The products include institutional clothing, bedding, clocks, signs — and lots of furniture. Nearly half the pages are filled with furniture, including the Slammer table, designed for correctional environments and named "because they put 'em in the slammer," said Jeff Beeson, executive director of Maryland Correctional Enterprises' board of directors.

Topping the furniture offerings is the Traditional Veneer Line, with prices up to $1,885 for a U-shaped desk.

There's pure Maryland pride in the Canton Collection. It features nearly three dozen pieces made from scratch — unlike some of the other lines that are merely assembled at the prisons. The pieces are designed by furniture plant manager Rusty Hyatt, who lives in — where else? — Canton.

The list of seating options reads like a Maryland geography lesson: Silver Spring, Chesapeake, Potomac, New Windsor, Frederick, Bel Air, Crisfield, Monkton, Hampstead, Ellicott, Allegany and Woodbine.  "We're proud to be Maryland.  We're proud to be the prison industry for Maryland," Beeson said.

He said MCE employs about 1,600 inmates at nine prisons and in warehouse, delivery and photocopying jobs outside prison walls. They are paid a base rate of $1.10 to $2.60 a day, Beeson said.

The agency sold $42.8 million worth of goods last year, making it 10th among prison industries in sales in the United States.

Beeson said inmates who work in the plants tend to re-offend and return to prison at about half the rate of those who don't. Inmates must have a high-school diploma or GED to work for the agency, which can help with their schooling.  "We truly believe we're doing something good here," Beeson said.

Chris Gardner  /  AP file
Another inmate checks the quality of the printing at the Maryland Department of Corrections.
Private furniture makers aren't as keen on prison industries. The Independent Office Products and Furniture Dealers Association, based in Arlington, Va., supports a bill passed in September by the U.S. House of Representatives that would require Federal Prison Industries Inc. to compete on a more even footing with the private sector for federal contracts. A 2004 law ended its monopoly on supplying office furniture and other items to federal agencies, but left it with some advantages, said Michael Ochs, the trade group's director of government affairs.

He said the association has concentrated on the federal, not the state level. But Ochs said state prison industries — and every state has such an agency — also cut into private industry sales.  "We would like to see open and fair competition where the industry can compete on an equal footing," Ochs said.

Maryland law requires state agencies to buy from Maryland Correctional Enterprises any goods or services it can provide at prices at or below the prevailing average market price.

Beeson said Maryland Correctional Enterprises tries to limit its negative economic impact on the private sector by producing things not made by Maryland companies.  "Every year we study it, and for the whole state of Maryland, we constitute less than 3 percent of anyone's business in any one category," he said.

One category in which the agency has no competition is license plates. It makes every tag sold in Maryland, accounting for $3.8 million in sales.

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