Printing Provides ‘Escape’ From Prison Life
Managing an in-plant where 73 of your employees are serving time for committing crimes has the potential to be a very stressful job. But for Steve Ryan, there is more satisfaction than stress in his role as general manager at Oregon Corrections Enterprises (OCE), in Salem, Ore., where he oversees the Print and Mail Services program. He relishes the opportunity to make a positive impact on the lives of men who may never have had a decent role model.
“A lot of these guys never had a family to speak of,” he points out. “Sometimes I feel like a father figure.”
His passion for the printing program he built is obvious, as is his concern for the men who work for him. He doesn’t just want them to churn out printing for the Oregon Department of Corrections (DOC) and other government entities; he wants them to become better people with skills and work ethics that will let them succeed in society once they’re released.
“The rewarding part of the job is seeing these guys turn their life around,” he says.
Long gone is the chain gang mentality of forcing prisoners to do hard labor as a punishment. Prison printing programs like the one at the Oregon State Correctional Institution (OSCI) emphasize teaching skills and providing a sense of purpose. And while prison in-plants do save taxpayers money, that is not their primary goal.
“It gives them a focus in life,” Ryan says of the adults in custody (AICs) in his program. “We’re giving them some real-life skills.”
In recent years, the partnership between OCE and the state’s Publishing & Distribution (P&D) operation has strengthened. Appropriate state government work is being routed to OCE and the two operations are moving toward sharing job submission and mail automation software, which will save money and simplify ordering for agencies.
“I see it being a definite asset to the state, having this type of partnership,” says State Printer Tim Hendrix.
Design, print, and mail are three of 28 programs at OCE. Though the DOC has used AICs to manufacture a variety of products for over a century, the creation of OCE traces its roots to the passage of Ballot Measure 68 in the late 1990s, which built on the requirement that state prison inmates work or train for 40 hours per week. The DOC’s work-based educational program was converted to a vocational print training program, run by an instructor with no graphic arts background. When Ryan was hired in 1998, though, he had more elaborate plans.
Creating the Print Program
“I saw it as an opportunity to build a shop,” he says. With 21 years of printing industry experience behind him, Ryan set about overhauling the print program. He hired skilled staff and began replacing the antiquated equipment. He had every AIC reapply for a job in the shop, holding them to rigorous behavioral requirements and adopting college-level training materials. He slowly turned the training program into a self-sustaining business.
When the state’s P&D operation went all digital in 2004, Ryan arranged to purchase its offset presses. He hired production coordinators from the private sector. Over time he was able to expand the facility from 1,500 sq. ft. to its current 20,000-sq.-ft. operation, which includes design, print, bindery, and mail.
Today, the operation has 60 AICs in printing, plus another eight in mail and five in design. Helping Ryan in supervisory roles are four production coordinators and a production manager. The Print and Mail Services operation runs from 6 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
AICs are compensated through a Performance Recognition Award System that awards them points based on their performance and the complexity of the work they do, supplemented by a secondary awards system. These points are later converted into monetary awards.
The operation prints a variety of jobs, including pamphlets, booklets, stationery, business cards, and carbonless forms.
“We literally do millions of envelopes a month,” adds Ryan.
The shop runs most of the state’s long-run, one- or two-color offset work and handles quite a lot of its bindery work, owing to its extensive bindery capabilities. Though the in-plant has digital printing equipment, it’s mostly used for internal DOC work. One of Print and Mail Services’ specialties is fulfillment, and AICs do a good deal of hand inserting.
“That’s where we excel because we’ve got the manpower for that,” notes Ryan. “Our mailroom is more of a fulfillment center than a traditional mailroom.”
The in-plant handles some legislative printing and does work for the Oregon Health Plan and other state agencies, but this work never includes any secure printing.
“We produce some darn good work off of the equipment we have,” boasts Ryan.
As a self-sustaining operation, OCE Print and Mail Services must charge back for the work it produces.
“We have to be profitable, but … at the end of the year, if I’m in the black, I’m doing my job,” he says.
Print and Mail Services keeps its prices on par with those of local commercial printers and the state’s P&D operation.
“Our goal is to save the state agencies and the taxpayers money,” Ryan says.
He acknowledges that this goal can aggravate private sector printers, who don’t appreciate the competition.
“When the printing industry found out that we were opening a shop,” he recalls, “we had the pitchforks out front.”
But he sat with a few dozen business owners to explain OCE’s purpose and built trust with the community. He explained that OCE Print and Mail Services does not solicit work from private citizens but focuses on work from municipalities, counties, and state agencies.
“We do not get any pushback any more from the private sector,” he reports.
Familiar But Different
Any visitor to the Print and Mail Services operation would be surprised to see how much it resembles any other print shop. As much as Ryan strives to run his operation like a business, however, there are a few key differences between his shop and an outside in-plant or commercial printer.
Inside the walls of the OSCI, tools must be locked up lest they make tempting weapons. Internet use is prohibited for AICs, which complicates the use of MIS and Web-to-print systems. Lockdowns, though rare, could render his entire workforce unavailable without warning, requiring he and his civilian supervisory staff to run all the equipment (as happened last fall when wildfires forced the evacuation of AICs from the prison).
While some might assume a staff of convicted criminals would be prone to fighting or other antisocial behavior, Ryan says that is simply not the case.
“Once they get into the shop, these guys are very focused on doing their jobs and staying out of trouble,” he says. They know that disciplinary action will cause them to lose the incentives this job gets them, including preferential housing, so they are very well behaved, he says. Even so, he adds, a security officer walks through the shop every hour.
One benefit of being part of OCE, Ryan notes, is that it gives his shop access to skilled in-house mechanics who can fix virtually any equipment problems. His in-plant has six A.B. Dick presses, with three in storage; if one breaks, the shop gets one out of storage and the maintenance crew rebuilds the broken one. If a part is not available from the manufacturer, the prison’s metal shop builds the part.
“We do a lot of repair and remanufacturing of parts,” he attests.
Print and Mail Services’ partnership with P&D has blossomed since Hendrix became state printer. Prior to that there was almost a competition between the two for jobs, but Hendrix has sought to work more closely with OCE and streamline the transfer of appropriate work to Print and Mail Services.
“Communication between the two shops has been at its all-time high,” Hendrix reports.
One recent move toward streamlining — and cost savings — is the consolidation of software used by both operations, such as mail presorting software and Web-to-print. Print and Mail Services currently uses MyOrderDesk from Print Reach, while P&D has WebCRD from Rochester Software Associates. OCE is now recreating its templates for WebCRD so both operations can receive jobs from the same system. This will eliminate a lot of rekeying of data whenever a job comes into P&D’s system and has to be transferred to OCE. It will also make things easier on customers.
“This approach would allow state agencies just to come to our order system (Print.Oregon.gov) and they can order anything,” says Hendrix. “It would be shifted to whatever entity needs to print it. If it’s something that fits the mix for OCE, it would then go immediately to them.”
The two in-plants are working together in other ways too, such as when P&D received a recent rush order for color flyers for a vaccine event that had to be shipped the next day. Hendrix knew his operation couldn’t get them done in time.
“We partnered with OCE. They did a little under half, we did a little over half, and got the job done,” he says. “We have that ability because we know we have the same equipment and we’re charging the same price.”
Printing: A Great Escape
Beyond saving state agencies money on printing, OCE Print and Mail Services provides a valuable service for the AICs.
“It gives them focus in life. It gives them an ability to build some skills,” says Ryan.
Working at OCE gives AICs a routine to keep them busy, along with a feeling that they are outside the prison walls for eight hours a day. This impacts their behavior.
“They’re being productive. They’re staying out of trouble,” Ryan says. “I start seeing attitude changes within the first few weeks.”
Even AICs serving life sentences make good workers, he notes, and several have become skilled operators.
“They have to have a career, just like you and I do, otherwise there’s nothing to focus their life on,” he points out.
They help train new AICs and also give them perspective on how to serve time and avoid trouble.
Many of the AICs come into the shop with no job experience at all, so Ryan and his staff have to help them develop work ethics. They watch for improvement and give those AICs more responsibility, which bolsters their self confidence. They give the AICs a chance to discuss ideas, voice concerns, and have their voices heard. This is something they have never had before, and it can be life changing.
“At times I feel like a counsellor,” Ryan says.
“They appreciate the fact that they’ve been given that second chance,” he says. This inspires their loyalty, he notes, and makes them very hard workers.
“They show up to work clean, sober, and ready to work,” he says.
Ryan is pleased that his printing program has played a part in giving these former AICs job skills and helping them return to society as productive citizens.
“We give [employers] a pool of talent that’s young and wants to work — and has learned the basics of the trade,” he says.
Success stories like these highlight the vital purpose OCE serves, and justify all the hard work Ryan has put in to build the print program. Coming to work is a fulfilling experience for him.
“It’s exciting to walk in each and every day,” he says.
Related story: Prison In-plants: When Pros Are Cons