Prison In-plants: When Pros Are Cons
What if, at one of your busiest times of the year, none of your employees showed up for work?
What if all your paper, tools and chemicals were under lock and key at all times? What if you knew that 100% of your workers were convicted criminals — some of them murderers? Could you still run an efficient in-plant and get all your work out?
Prison in-plants face this situation all the time. Yet they’re making it work, not only getting quality products to their customers on time, but engendering good, solid work ethics in their inmate labor forces to rival any in the outside world.
“When you enter the print shop, it’s like a manufacturing environment, so it’s a little bit of an escape inside the walls,” says Jeremy Elder, deputy director at Cornhusker State Industries at the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, in Lincoln, Neb. “So it takes those guys out of the prison environment that they’re used to and gets them thinking about other things.”
That, in a nutshell, is one of the primary reasons printing programs exist in correctional facilities: to keep inmates busy and productive, so they stay out of trouble. By all accounts, it works very well.
“We have a pretty big impact on the behavior of inmate workers,” Elder affirms. “Somebody that wants to get a job with us has got to maintain a pretty good behavior outside of work. The guys that work for us definitely have incentive to be well behaved all the time.”
The print shop in his facility employs one civilian supervisor and 25 inmates. They print jobs on a collection of Ryobi presses and Konica Minolta digital printers. Those jobs include business cards, forms, booklets, decals and banners, along with engraved signs and awards, produced for tax-based agencies throughout Nebraska.
These printed pieces, however, are not what Elder sees as the shop’s true products.
“The end product is the people that are leaving and hopefully becoming successful citizens when they get out,” he insists.
Training for Post-Prison Life
In fact, many prison in-plants around the country are seen as vocational training programs first and print shops second.
“I always like to think that any income this generates is just a byproduct of training the inmates,” says Mark Epley, inmate services print shop supervisor at the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department, in Santa Paula, Calif. “That’s our main goal in here.”
His print shop includes four inmates along with himself and a part-time civilian employee. An entirely self-supported operation, the in-plant prints such items as carbonless forms, business cards, signage, directories and envelopes for the Sheriff’s department, the county’s health care agency and county schools.
But where most prison in-plants limp along with aging offset equipment, often obtained second-hand from other government in-plants, Epley’s print shop was fortunate to get funding a few years ago to install an MGI Meteor DP8700 XL multi-substrate digital press. It not only improved the in-plant’s turnaround time, but allowed it to take on more of the short-run work it had been unable to print in the past.
“I’m trying to get a digital envelope press, because we do a lot of four-color envelopes,” Epley adds. A laser engraver and wide-format printer are also on his wish list. Of course, the shop still keeps its one-and two-color A.B. Dick presses very busy as well.
Epley tries to focus on teaching inmates new skills and promoting a good work ethic, to prepare them for life outside prison. Since many have had little to no previous work experience, he’s careful not to dish out harsh reprimands, but rather ask them what they learned when they make a mistake. And he’s quick with praise when they do a good job.
“We’re hopefully making a change in people’s lives,” he says.
A Maximum Security In-plant
The goal is somewhat different at Pendleton Correctional Facility’s print shop, in Pendleton, Ind.
“The prison system runs on forms, and we provide those forms at just the cost of the paper and supplies,” reports Robert Carey, who manages a print shop staffed by five inmates at the maximum security prison.
Though he was hired there as a teacher 18 years ago and ran the shop as a training program, that program was dissolved a decade ago and he was made a correctional officer. The in-plant was scheduled for closure at the time, as well, but Carey undertook some good old in-plant justification measures and proved that the shop could print the necessary forms for 2/3 of the cost of outside printers. As a result, his in-plant now prints all forms for the entire state prison system.
To do this, the shop uses one-color Hamada and Ryobi presses, making metal plates in a dark room.
“We still use the Heidelberg Windmill for doing numbering and perforating,” he boasts.
In addition to its ’60s-era equipment arsenal, the shop also differs from outside in-plants in other ways.
“Everything’s under lock and key,” Carey says. Tools must be signed out and returned. Chemicals are weighed before and after each use to ensure none make their way out of the shop. Even paper is stored in a locked room. This all inhibits productivity.
It’s the same at all other prison in-plants. Everyday tools like flash drives must be carefully tracked. Inmates can’t have access to the Internet, so digital files must be retrieved by supervisors.
And then there are the searches.
“I’ve had deputies come in here and just do a search in here and find some contraband, and they’ll just roll the whole class out, and then I’ll have to start from scratch again,” remarks Epley.
His entire staff, gone in an instant.
At Cornhusker Industries, Elder recalls a similar contraband search that shut his shop down in the middle of a huge job printing open enrollment materials for the state’s health insurance plan. He convened his inmate staff and some civilian workers in a warehouse to do the hand work required and get the job out on deadline.
“It’s pretty difficult to completely safeguard against that,” says Elder.
At Pendleton, Carey’s status as a correctional officer sometimes means he gets temporary assignment elsewhere, so the in-plant just shuts down.
“It disrupts the program,” he admits. “It just slows things down.”
But his customers, all of them at state prisons, understand when their work is late, he says.
Another common disruption is the lockdown, when all inmates must remain in their cells, sometimes for an extended period. When that happens in Ventura, Epley says, he and his civilian employee have to run all the work themselves.
Surviving the Transfer
Something no in-plant manager likes to face is unexpected turnover and the need to retrain new employees. For prison in-plant managers, this is a way of life, as prisoners get transferred to new correctional facilities without warning — years of press training out the door. One solution at Cornhusker Industries is cross-training.
“Almost everybody is skilled in multiple areas in the shop, so it’s not like we’re totally dependent on one person,” Elder says.
At the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department, Epley also has to deal with workers who haven’t been sentenced yet, who might be released at any time.
“It hurts,” he admits. “It’s three weeks or four weeks of me out on the floor training, trying to get the shop back up.”
At Pendleton, however, things are much different.
“One good thing about maximum security, they don’t transfer them much,” says Carey. “I haven’t had to hire anyone for five or six years.”
Since the print shop is no longer in the business of teaching vocational skills to inmates, Carey has the “luxury” of employing inmates with long sentences — even lifers. Of course, this means that his staff includes both murderers and molesters. He tries not to think about it.
“I try not to even look at their backgrounds,” he says. “I don’t want to judge them. As long as they get along well in my shop, I don’t have any problems.”
In fact, despite assumptions, inmate workers around the country tend to be model employees, managers say. They don’t want to lose their jobs due to fighting or other infractions.
Their Best Behavior
“We have very little incidence with anybody inside the shop areas, as far as violence,” notes Elder. “But it’s something you always have to keep in mind.”
Criminal activity is not completely absent; Epley recounts an incident when a worker printed counterfeit postcards with indicia on the sly. By and large, though, the inmate employees feel fortunate to be able to work in the in-plant, so they behave themselves.
“They want to stay out of trouble because they don’t want to lose this program,” says Carey.
Instead, managers say the inmate workers take their work very seriously — more seriously than operators on the outside, they contend, since printing is the only thing they have going on in their lives.
“They eat, sleep and drink printing,” says Carey, figuratively. Printing is part of their lives, he says. They spend their off time thinking up solutions for problems they encounter in the shop. One inmate came up with an ordering and inventory system for the in-plant, Carey says.
“These guys, they appreciate their job,” he notes.
They develop a strong work ethic and appreciation for quality.
“They definitely don’t want to have something leave that’s not up to their standards,” adds Elder.
So while prison in-plants certainly do save taxpayer money, the benefits they provide to morale and skill building extend far beyond that.
“I think the benefits are mainly to the offenders,” confirms Carey.
“This is a great work assignment [for inmates],” Epley agrees. “It really is.”
Related story: Behind Bars: Doing Press Time
Bob has served as editor of In-plant Impressions since October of 1994. Prior to that he served for three years as managing editor of Printing Impressions, a commercial printing publication. Mr. Neubauer is very active in the U.S. in-plant industry. He attends all the major in-plant conferences and has visited more than 170 in-plant operations around the world. He has given presentations to numerous in-plant groups in the U.S., Canada and Australia, including the Association of College and University Printers and the In-plant Printing and Mailing Association. He also coordinates the annual In-Print contest, co-sponsored by IPMA and In-plant Impressions.