Prison factories produce a range of items, including hope

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HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- Wanted: Convicted felons with good behavior, for part-time jobs making Big House products at state prison workshops. Opportunities available in printing, textiles and soap making. Salary range -- 19 to 42 cents per hour, with bonuses up to 70 cents an hour for good work.

License plate makers need not apply, at least not here at State Correctional Institution Huntingdon.

Pennsylvania Correctional Industries, a program that puts inmates at 15 state prisons to work while they serve their sentences, employs more than 1,500 inmates statewide. And they make a lot more than license plates.

SCI Huntingdon is a gabled, red-brick structure that dates to 1889, when it opened as a "reformatory" for delinquent youths. It became a maximum-security facility for state prisoners in 1960 and housed death-row inmates until 1995.

Huntingdon contains three operations where the Big House brand of products is made. There's a print shop for making hundreds of forms for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and other state agencies; a garment factory for making orange and gray jumpsuits and other clothing for inmates; and a soap factory for making many different types of bar soap, de-greasers, hand cleaners, laundry soap and other products.

About 265 of the 2,100 inmates at the all-male Huntingdon institution work in one of the in-house factories.

PCI is not a small-time operation, said Director Tony Miller, who oversees the products made at all 15 prisons. More than 1,500 inmates work through PCI, or about 3 percent of the system's 45,000 prisoners.

"Our mission is to teach inmates to work in Pennsylvania, to learn a work ethic," said Mr. Miller.

The work program is designed to help inmates avoid returning to a life of crime by helping them find a practical job when they are released, he said.

For the fiscal year that ended in June 2007, PCI made $34 million in gross sales and $1 million in profits, which is put back into PCI to buy new machines and equipment.

There are 27 prisons in the state Department of Corrections. In July 2009, two more will join the list, SCI Forest and SCI Frackville. Both will open $2.5 million laundries.

Work days for inmates are broken into two shifts, each two to three hours long, and pay ranges from 19 cents to 42 cents per hour, depending on the inmate's skill level.

Inmates do not receive actual cash payments while they are still in prison; the money accumulates only on paper, Mr. Miller said. They can use the money at the prison commissary to buy cupcakes, hygiene products, sneakers, tobacco and other products.

They also can send money to their homes, pay fines that have been levied against them or use the money to buy a bus or train ticket when they leave prison, he said.

Although Huntingdon does not make license plates, it does produce the annual vehicle registration stickers that go on the plates. License plates are made at SCI Fayette, south of Pittsburgh.

The sticker shop also makes licenses for the Fish and Boat Commission and the Game Commission as well as labels, permits, snowmobile licenses, mass transit stickers and fuel stickers for trucks.

Mr. Miller said prisoners are already printing and stuffing envelopes with vehicle registration stickers for 2010. Other stickers in production are as far ahead as 2014.

At the print shop, inmates make more than 200 different forms, informational booklets, posters and calendars. Some of the print work requires skilled training, which inmates learn in-house.

An inmate named John, for example, came into SCI Huntingdon with some computer skills, and training in the prison's print shop allows him to work in graphic design. Now he spends his work shifts at a computer creating graphics and logos from doodles and sketches.

John -- prison officials wouldn't let inmates give their last names -- who has been working in graphic design for about a year and a half, said he also works on the layout for projects for various agencies and converts files into different formats when needed.

"I'm blessed to have what I think is one of the best jobs in the jail," John said.

Carl, a press operator in the prison's print shop, said his job is rewarding because he gets to see the finished projects he prints. He keeps a portfolio under his work bench of posters, calendars, forms and booklets he's worked on.

Anthony, who works in the garment factory that makes boxer shorts, among other items, said he is very happy with his job. When he started in the factory in 1995, he worked on the shirt line, cutting and stitching shirts on a sewing machine.

In Huntingdon's garment factory, inmates make jumpsuits, smocks, shirts, pants, staff uniforms, rain suits, neon safety vests, boxer shorts and even American flags.

The prison's soap plant makes bars of soap, antibacterial hand sanitizers, janitorial products and laundry detergents that it sells to schools, state hospitals and other nonprofit organizations.

To attain a position, inmates must apply and have six months of good behavior, good cell block reports and at least three to six years left in their sentences. Inmates are interviewed and, if hired, work a probationary period before being fully employed.

Mr. Miller said some inmates, after serving their time and being released, have written letters of thanks for the skills they learned through their PCI jobs that helped them get jobs when they left prison.

"We're preparing them for release. If they have [a PCI job], they have a better chance of getting a job [when they are released]," he said.

Kari Andren is an intern with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents Association.


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