Making a Good Job of Jailhouse Employment


Harold Johnson spends much of his time making maps of places he cannot visit, for the benefit of people who cannot see.

Johnson translates maps into Braille. It is hard work--exacting work--but he has the time; he is an inmate at the Nebraska State Penitentiary, serving up to 45 years for burglary and sexual assault.

"It takes me about two to three days to do one map," he says. He is proud of his work; he keeps a scrapbook, and shows off colorless maps of Mexico, Nebraska, the United States.

Johnson's work may be unusual, but it is not unique. Prisons nationwide have had to look for ways to put inmates to work as cells fill and the public takes away recreation programs and demands work instead.

A 1994 Oregon law requiring every inmate be given a job was a great idea but a nightmare to implement, said Perrin Damon, a spokeswoman for that state's prison system.

"There were just too many inmates and so many floors to sweep," she said. "We had to come up with other ideas."

So Oregon inmates make denim shirts and hats sold through catalogs.

There are similar stories elsewhere. About 50 Nevada inmates restore antique cars; South Carolina prisoners help fashion caps and gowns for graduates; Tennessee's residents might be wearing boxer shorts made behind bars. Some California prisoners even take airline reservations.

Thirty-six states have turned to the federal Prison Industry Enhancement program, which allows penitentiaries to work with outside businesses and sell products across state lines. In exchange for training and employment options, the companies receive cheap overhead and steady labor.

The programs require voluntary participation from inmates and local labor notification. In some cases, inmates earn at least minimum wage--far above the 20 to 80 cents usually earned in menial prison jobs.

Deductions are taken for inmate room and board, taxes, family support and crime victim compensation.

Authorities say the programs do not always make money for the state, but the lessons inmates learn from daily work are priceless.

"They are put in a real work environment, with the same production and quality control as their counterparts in the private sector," said Tony Ellis, division of industries director at the South Carolina Department of Corrections. In order to work in the program, inmates must have or be working toward getting their high school degree.

"Most of these guys have never learned a work ethic," he said. "So they go out to the gate every morning and they go to work every day. And they come back and say, 'It's not such a bad deal.' "

Gold Coast RV Products has a sewing factory at Ventura Youth Correctional Facility in Ventura, Calif., and employs about 75 people, half of whom are inmates.

"We're a seasonal industry, camping, and it used to be that when things slowed down, we just bit the bullet and took a loss just to keep people employed," said Thomas McNamee, president of Gold Coast RV.

"But if we cut the hours back on a prisoner, at least they have a roof over their head and are being fed and clothed," he said. "They may not realize the same income, but the impact is not the same."

Oregon's program, Prison Blues, produces hats, bags and denim shirts that civilians can wear beyond bars. The program, which employs 43 inmates, sends catalogs nationwide and pays inmates anywhere from 18 to 83 cents an hour.

The California Youth Authority, meanwhile, has arranged for inmates to handle overflow reservations for Trans World Airlines during holiday seasons. About 55 inmates between the ages of 18 and 25 are trained as reservation agents, earning about $5.67 an hour, said Sarah Ludeman, CYA spokeswoman.

"The calls are monitored, there is tight security and the young people in the program get very protective," she said. "It's a very valued position to earn money in the prison, and they don't want to mess it up."

Several hundred inmates apply each year for the 30 positions at Nebraska's Braille factory, one of at least five prison programs nationally that translate written materials for the blind.

Inmates earn as much as $1.08 an hour to proofread Braille textbook translations--almost seven times as much as inmates who clean or do menial chores.

"It's a great place to work, as far as prison goes," said Johnson, the map maker. "It's quiet and it's interesting and you get paid well."

The most popular products are time-consuming textbook translations, usually math and science books.

A private company might charge as much as $2.50 per page for Braille translation, compared with about 50 cents per page through the Nebraska program. The quality is the same or better, said Ed Stone, a textbook coordinator for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

Prisoners say it takes at least a year to become proficient. It takes so long to teach the basics of Braille that prison officials prefer to hire "lifers" rather than inmates with light sentences.

"We train them and then they leave," said coordinator Dominic Inzodda. "What can you do?"

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