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Inmate Jobs Harder to Find as Prison Population Soars : Corrections: Report criticizes department for lacking a 'clear vision of goals for work programs.' Officials say prisoners are arriving with fewer skills.

THE PRICE OF PUNISHMENT. The Booming Business of Running California's Prisons. One in a series

October 17, 1994|DAN MORAIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — As the prison population swells, the Department of Corrections finds it ever more difficult to find jobs for inmates.

In a report this year, the Little Hoover Commission criticized the department for "lacking a unified structure and a clear vision of goals for work programs."

"The department," said the report, "has placed illiterate inmates in jobs without first raising their education level, created an employment demand for lower-level inmates while high-security inmates wait for assignments, and wasted state resources on unproductive job programs."

The Prison Industry Authority is the main division responsible for providing jobs to inmates, putting them to work at prison farms producing milk, eggs and beef for inmates, in factories making clothing worn by prisoners, and at prison laundries.

Prison Industry workers help the state by fighting wildfires and making car license plates, eyeglasses for Medi-Cal patients and furniture used by government agencies. Their pay averages 50 cents an hour. Inmates on fire crews get 95 cents an hour.

Although the prison population is at record highs, the number of working inmates has fallen to 6,300 from almost 8,000 in 1991. Sales dropped by $20 million to $127 million between 1991 and 1993.

Corrections officials blame declining sales on the recession and state budget cuts. They also say efforts to put inmates to work are hindered because prisoners are arriving with fewer skills than in years past.

Meantime, the program is being assailed in a federal class-action suit in which inmates contend that their hourly pay violates the federal minimum wage law.

State officials are confident the lawsuit will fail. But a victory by inmates could cost the state millions of dollars in back and future wages.

California law prohibits goods made in prison from being sold on the open market in the United States. The prohibition dates to the 1800s, when labor campaigned against inmates being allowed to do work that might cost law-abiding people their jobs.

"There is something called free enterprise," said Robert Burton, a veteran member of the board that oversees prison industries. "Here, the workers and the entrepreneurs have something in common. They don't want a convict taking their jobs."

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There is, however, no prohibition against selling prison-made goods outside the country. The Prison Industry Authority has been testing export markets for denim jeans in Asia and Europe for a year. But it has been slow in starting and only a few thousand pairs have been sold.

One exporter trying to develop a market for California prison-made jeans in Japan is calling the product Gangsta Blues, said Andy Parks, marketing director for prison industries. The authority obliges by stenciling on labels saying the jeans were made at Folsom or Soledad prisons.

"Japan has kind of a fascination with crime in California. It's kind of strange," Parks said.

Oregon's prison industry is in the export business, selling denims to Japan and Italy, bringing in several million dollars. With no law in Oregon prohibiting domestic sales, that state's prisons also sell garments in retail stores. Oregon even has its own advertising agency and logo: "Prison Blues, made on the inside to be worn on the outside."

Oregon prisoners make up to $7 an hour. They pay taxes, give 5% to a victims fund, 5% to family support, 50% for room and board, and put 25% into savings.

In California, a 1990 initiative sponsored by Gov. George Deukmejian and approved by voters created a limited exemption to the prohibition against using inmate labor to produce goods sold in general commerce.

Under a separate program called Joint Ventures, prisoners at Folsom make neon signs for hospitals and casinos. At San Quentin, inmates bake cookies. At Avenal, inmates run a pig farm, and they recycle garbage at Chino. They make at least minimum wage, with most of it going to victims, taxes, room and board, family support and mandatory savings. A total of $1.37 million has been paid to inmates since the program began.

Joint Ventures director Noreen Blonien said her goal was to have 500 inmates working by now. There are 200. She cited the poor economy for hindering expansion, along with businesses' fear about operating from prisons, and prison officials' concerns about security.

Like the Prison Industry Authority, Joint Ventures has bold plans and calls itself "the future of corrections."

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