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Ventura County

Wards Wash Their Hands of the Past

Six women making fragrant soap at a Camarillo correctional facility are part of a program offering wages and hope for the future.

November 15, 2002|Massie Ritsch | Times Staff Writer

Making soap has given Desiree Campbell a chance to clean up her life.

Six years into a prison sentence for the robbery and killing of a store clerk when she was a teenager, the 20-year-old now has a job that pays her to make fragrant, brightly colored glycerin bars with plastic toys inside.

"You guys hate paying taxes," she told a crowd of workaday adults Thursday, "but I like it. I'm proud to do that."

Campbell is one of six female wards at the Ventura Youth Correctional Facility in Camarillo who work for Soap Vision. Started in 1998 by a Santa Barbara couple, the novelty soap company moved its operations in August to a large shed on the Camarillo campus. A ceremony there Thursday celebrated a new partnership involving the company and the youth facility's wards.

Soap Vision is the latest private company to participate in the California Youth Authority's Free Venture program. At the CYA's 11 institutions around the state, wards have worked for 20 businesses and two state agencies since 1985. They have cut awnings for motor homes, refurbished computers and sewn underwear.

Since these partnerships began, the state's young offenders have earned nearly $9 million in gross wages, according to the CYA. They have paid $1.3 million in restitution to crime victims and contributed slightly more to their own room and board.

When paroled, the wards leave with savings accounts to begin their new lives.

"This is just a steppingstone for the house that I plan on building," said Janelle Graves, 21, in prison for first-degree murder. Graves said she wants to enter fashion merchandising and start an organization for youths.

The young women working for Soap Vision earn minimum wage mixing glycerin soap liquid in large kettles, pouring it into molds and dropping in color, scents, figurines and corporate logos. They also do the packing and shipping.

It's a bargain for Mario and Marie Tafarella, the owners of Soap Vision. The couple, who started their company from their kitchen, can pay their employees a third of what they would pay workers "on the outside," and the wards are more productive, Mario said. The couple's rent is low and they receive reimbursements and tax credits from the government for hiring incarcerated workers.

Soap Vision manufactures about 3,000 bars a day. Within the next year, Tafarella said, the company hopes to hire up to 50 more wards, increasing capacity to 10,000 bars daily.

There are risks to hiring workers with violent histories, and Soap Vision's factory floor hints of them. Scissors, razor blades and screwdrivers are kept under padlock. When Trans World Airlines operated a reservation line from the Camarillo facility, one of the wards stole credit card numbers for his own use.

That sort of abuse almost never occurs today, CYA officials said, and the wards who work for Soap Vision do not handle customers' financial information.

Tafarella, 50, said he wanted to take a chance on the young convicts because he ran with the wrong crowd when he was a teenager and got into plenty of trouble. Nothing violent, he said, but he spent a week in jail for drug possession.

"It allowed me to understand how strong peer pressure can be," he said. "I can relate."

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