A captive work force

Economy: Maryland prison officials are encouraging private industry to hire inmates -- for their mutual benefit.

September 09, 1999|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

As machines thud and clank in the background, Melvin Powell quietly sprays large metal rectangles -- the brackets for electrical switches -- with a plume of gray paint. Minutes later, he inspects his work as it emerges with a glossy finish from an oven burning at 400 degrees.

"I think they look pretty good," says Powell, his face partly hidden behind a mask and his hands covered with gray paint. "Maybe when I get out, I can get a job with this company."

Powell, 49, isn't an average employee. Serving a 30-year sentence for murder in the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown, he works for minimum wage behind prison walls for Powercon, a Severn company that builds electrical switches for power stations.

Powell offers a glimpse into the future of prison labor, say Maryland officials, who are inviting more companies to tap the huge labor supply inside state prisons.

Already, prisoners in Hagerstown paint Powercon's switch equipment and repair furniture for another company, Furniture Medic of Rockville, on an as-needed basis. At a Jessup prison, inmates inspect perfume bottles for a Baltimore glass-maker.

Buoyed by the success of that undertaking, which involves about 30 inmates, state prison officials are intensifying their corporate recruitment, moving prison labor beyond such traditional jobs as making license plates and furniture. Two more projects, involving hand-sewn dolls and wood flooring, should begin soon. And corrections officials say they will entertain corporate requests for almost any kind of help -- from sign-painting to data entry.

In the past year, they have begun to market the program through brochures -- with the slogan "A resource for the private sector" -- and ads on the Division of Correction's Web site. They also plan to hire a manager to lead the expansion, appealing to businesses that have trouble finding workers amid a tight labor market.

"We have most of the traditional prison industries now," said Steve Shiloh, who oversees the prison labor program in Maryland. "This is the next avenue to gain significant inmate employment."

Besides giving inmates new skills for the "outside," prison officials say they also benefit every time a convict gets a job -- better security "inside."

"Show me an inmate watching television all day, and I'll show you a dangerous inmate," says Leonard A. Sipes Jr., spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Maryland is just catching on to the prison-industry partnerships, which began in 1979 with a federal law authorizing the practice. Such programs have seen a 200 percent increase in jobs nationwide since the early 1990s, and now approximately 2,500 inmates work for companies, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

In California, inmates manufacture computer chips. In Utah, they work as telemarketers.

Near Las Vegas, inmates at a medium-security prison rebuild vintage automobiles for the Imperial Palace Hotel and Casino. Recently, they worked on a 1941 Mercedes used in the "Hogan's Heroes" television show. The car is worth more than $12 million, said Dave Hoshaw, supervisor of the work crew.

Hoshaw and several other corporate managers say prisoners make good employees, despite their criminal records. Only the best-behaved are chosen for corporate work, and they usually work hard to keep their jobs, which pay better than traditional prison labor.

"There are a lot of con artists, murderers, sex offenders and bank robbers in here," Hoshaw says. "But they respect the cars, respect the bosses. You would never know this shop from an outside one."

Some employers ambivalent

Maryland businesses don't always express that same enthusiasm. Hinting at the program's future for his company, an official with Baltimore's Carr-Lowrey Glass Co. says it is re-evaluating the program as part of an unrelated business overhaul.

And Ralph Siegel, Powercon's president, says the decision to hire inmates in Hagerstown wasn't an altruistic one. "We couldn't find anybody else to do it," he says.

But the owner of the Rockville franchise of Furniture Medic says inmates surprised him by deftly handling an order for for several hundred chairs last February.

"It was a long shot, but we tried it. The pricing and quality was there," says owner Michael O'Dea, who would consider using inmates again. "We were actually glad to see the state doing something [other] than just having [prisoners] sit idle."

The vast majority of Maryland's 22,600 inmates perform some kind of work -- they sweep floors, prepare food and clean roads, and earn from $1 to $2.25 a day.

About 1,300 of those inmates labor for State Use Industries, which produces dozens of items, ranging from office furniture to packed beef to American flags, but sells only to non-profit groups and government agencies. Those prisoners earn about $110 a month.

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