MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama's corrections department is getting out of the box business.
The same goes for data entry, farming, paint and having inmates service the department's fleet.
All this because Prisons Commissioner Richard Allen says it's time for Alabama Correctional Industries to start thinking out of the box, too.
It's the largest restructuring ever of the corrections subdivision, which generated and spent about $19.1 million in fiscal year 2006. It has generated and spent about $16.5 million so far this year, prison officials said.
Allen said income from the division's few profitable ventures is being used to keep flailing ones afloat, so ACI has been losing money for years.
''I want ACI to be a profit center, not just a way to keep people occupied and keep people busy,'' he said in a recent interview. ''The challenge was how to make it profitable so it would throw off income to the department which we can then use to help offset the cost of incarceration.''
Correctional industries was formalized with the ''Prison-made Goods Act'' passed in 1976, but ACI director Andy Farquhar said the state dabbled in manufacturing long before then, with inmates spinning cotton in the 1920's.
According to the 1976 act, part of the subdivision's mission is to ''provide meaningful work and vocational training programs for inmates,'' but that will be changing with the restructuring scheduled in the coming months.
''It's going to be profitable, that's the new number one,'' said Farquhar, who's overseen the division since 1985.
He and Allen stressed that the restructuring plan is still in proposal status and is being reviewed by various staffers and departments. Allen said he expects the new ACI division to be operational before this time next year.
There are more than two dozen ACI entities, including 11 manufacturing operations, four service enterprises, five farms, three fleet maintenance facilities and a central warehouse and distribution facility. Manufactured products include furniture, mattresses, chemicals and uniforms.
Inmates who work for ACI are paid $0.25 to $0.65 per hour and the division operates out of a revolving account, meaning it doesn't get direct appropriations from the state general fund and survives using revenues from its goods and services.
Allen said ACI's car tag, printing and clothing manufacturing operations have been extremely profitable, but he said that hasn't been the case at its farms, where cattle and catfish have been raised and crops like cherry tomatoes, peas, squash and corn have been harvested.
The profitable operations will be expanded, but the farming operations at all five of its farm locations will be shutting down, he said.
''We will not be doing any more commercial type operations where we're trying to grow things to sell in the open market,'' Allen said. ''We've got some crops in the field right now, but this will be the last year that we'll do that.''
Deputy prisons chief Vernon Barnett said opponents of the plan need not worry about disenfranchised ACI inmates retreating back to prison to twiddle their thumbs.
''What we want to do is train these folks for high skilled jobs that will pay them a good wage,'' he said. ''They can get their kids back, they can have a better life. But especially with the folks working on the farm ... the reality is in today's modern farming, there aren't jobs like there used to be.''
The understaffed and overcrowded corrections department wants to use a hoped-for $23.8 million from the planned sale of nearly 6,000 acres to start chipping away at $90 million worth of capital improvements.
Allen and Gov. Bob Riley announced a far-reaching plan to eliminate most of a $30 million hole in corrections' operating budget for the 2008 fiscal year by cutting costs and raising money within the system.
Critics have chided corrections officials for selling off state property for a one-time gain instead of investing money necessary to make money-losing operations profitable. They've campaigned against closing the Farquhar Cattle Ranch in Hale County, where catfish are grown and cattle sales have already begun.
Pamela Oliver, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has studied racial disparities in prisons, said there are ''reasonable arguments'' both for and against profit-driven prison industries.
''It's a complicated issue,'' she said.
''But it's good — especially if (inmates) have any hope in having skills that will help them rehabilitate. On the other hand, sometimes the more you focus on profits, the more it starts looking like slave labor. Those are the issues I think people should think about.''