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5,000 Inmates Hold Company Jobs

Several states are using joint ventures with private firms to put prisoners to work.

July 18, 2004|Tim Reiterman | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Prison inmates are painting duck decoys in Indiana and Cobra sports cars in Nevada.

They're making street sweeper brushes in Kansas and street hockey sticks in Missouri.

In Washington, they're turning out carabiners -- metal rope fasteners for rock climbers. And in Oregon, they're sewing tough trousers for loggers.

Across the country, thousands of inmates are picking up paychecks each month from private companies that have formed partnerships with state prisons. And most of the work goes on behind prison walls.

In the last eight years, the number of inmates working in such programs nationally has more than tripled to about 5,000, according to the National Correctional Industries Assn. But California, with the largest state prison system, has fallen far off the pace, with fewer than 150 inmate workers in six ventures.

Kansas has more inmates making decorative pillows than California has in its entire program. Nevada has partnerships with twice as many companies. Now, the Silver State is trying to woo more businesses to a planned industrial park near Las Vegas.

In addition to assembling kit cars for famed automaker Carroll Shelby, Nevada inmates have restored old cars for an auto museum, including a bulletproof parade vehicle built for the pope, and have produced stained glass used in casinos and a Moscow church.

"We've done some unique things," said Howard Skolnik, who heads Nevada's program. "I've had tons of inmates say, 'If I knew work was this much fun, I would have tried it before.' "

South Carolina has more than 750 inmates working in its joint ventures -- five times more than California -- and does it without a dime of taxpayer support for the program's overhead.

Florida's program has inmates doing work such as printing, sewing and making dentures. The inmates often are paroled with certificates "saying they can do the job, whether it is driving a fork lift or welding," said Esther Knightly, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit organization running the program.

Washington's program has paid more than $34 million in gross wages to inmates -- nearly twice as much as California's. But, like California's program, it has been hurt by litigation.

Competing firms sued one of Washington's joint venture partners, alleging unfair competition. And recently the state's Supreme Court ruled that the program violated a state constitution provision against contracting out inmate labor. If the court does not reconsider, said prison industries chief Howard Yarborough, "The program could be kaput."

One of the best-known ventures is operating in neighboring Oregon, where inmates turn out denim pants.

The state's business partner, teriyaki sauce entrepreneur Junki Yoshida, is turning a profit marketing "Prison Blues" to loggers in the Pacific Northwest and to fashion-conscious young people in Europe and his native Japan.

"We lost a total of $1.6 million in the first three years, but I could not quit," Yoshida said. "It was a good thing I was making money with teriyaki sauce."

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