Who doesn’t remember the history class lesson about chain-gang, rock-busting punishments for prisoners? Or the Academy Award-winning movie with Paul Newman, Cool Hand Luke, where prisoners were forced to dig meaningless trenches as their daily chore.

That is not what I’m advocating when I say we should return to full-scale prison labor in this country.

I’m talking about prisoner labor that supplies a real service to the community or that goes to support the prisoner’s incarceration, such as growing their own food or building new facilities on prison grounds — labor projects that go beyond making license plates and picking up litter.

As Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., was quoted recently saying, “Do we want them just sitting in prison, lifting weights, becoming violent and thinking about their next crime?”

Of course, the answer is no. And I also don’t want them whiling away their time watching television, playing around with email or conducting their gang business on my dime. And by the way, on average it costs about $29,000 a year to keep an inmate locked up.

Ensign, long a supporter of the Federal Prison Industries government program — now called Unicor and established by Congress in 1934 to help rehabilitate and train inmates — would like to see the idea expanded. He’s offered a bill that would make it mandatory for all low-security prisoners to work 50 hours a week.

Currently, the FPI includes only about 15,000 federal prisoners. They produce products such as furniture, electronic components, clothing and fencing. While they don’t earn much money — $1.15 an hour tops — they are acquiring marketable skills. Also, companies that manufacture their goods with inmate labor cover a significant portion of prison staff salaries. In these strained economic times it is a win-win situation.

Some critics say forcing prisoners to work for less than minimum wage and in situations without the built-in health and safety guidelines the rest of us enjoy is akin to slavery and, at the very least, is taking advantage of a captive group.

I say we need to remember these are people convicted of preying on innocent fellow citizens who lost some of their rights by the very criminal deeds they perpetrated. One dollar and 15 cents an hour is better than earning nothing while these criminals pay off their debt to society.

In New York, the state is saving about $3.5 million each year by having inmates man the call center phones for the Department of Motor Vehicles.

In California, prisoners are learning to repair leaky public water tanks and are coming away with valuable underwater welding skills. In Florida, inmates have partnered with an agricultural center at the University of Florida and have not only helped the center survive, they are also growing a sizable portion of their own healthy food. After it was shown that inmate farming saved the Florida system nearly $2.5 million, the governor expanded the program.

Ohio prisoners are given buckets and brushes and paint their own cells. In New Jersey, a serious overpopulation of deer has created the constant need to clear carcasses off highways, and prisoners are called to that duty. In Georgia, convicts clean up the grounds of public cemeteries and various open spaces.

In other states, convicts learn the skill of auto body work and painting, as they fix up the municipal motor pool. And those assignments once performed by private contractors or government employees — cleaning courthouses and campsites or cutting the lawn at the governor’s mansion, for example — are now the job of carefully supervised prisoners.

That’s the key to success for all these inmate work programs — adequate supervision — and the realization that there is a duel positive at work here. The inmates find purpose, and the states save money.

There have been some mishaps along the way of this movement to increase the number of prisoners assigned to work. A small number of convicts who felt exploited in Georgia staged a brief strike. In Ohio, inmates performing various tasks at the governor’s home were found drinking on the job and bringing contraband tobacco back to the prison. In New Mexico, what used to be a viable inmate work program has dwindled now to almost nothing, as bad past management and the nation’s poor economy joined forces to flummox a once thriving program. In Wisconsin, prisoners used to cut the grass at municipal buildings angered a union leader who realized the program diminished the number of city worker seasonal jobs by about 40 positions.

Overall, however, requiring offenders to work seems like a no-brainer. When the inmate earns money, the burden on their oftentimes cash-strapped families to contribute to their prison bank account is eased. And studies have shown an increase in prisoner’s morale, self esteem and hope for their future on the outside.

Besides what it does for the inmates, this idea saves all of us taxpayers multiple millions of dollars every year.

Here’s hoping Ensign’s proposed bill passes. The sooner the better.

Diane Dimond is the author of Cirque Du Salahi: Be Careful Who You Trust. Click here for more information. She can be contacted at diane@dianedimond.net.