SPECIAL REPORT, PART 1:
Recession reaches inside prison walls
BY COLLEEN KOTTKE • The Reporter
August 8, 2010
WAUPUN — Inmate Don Patterson hopes his job in the metal stamping department takes him far from the limestone walls surrounding Waupun Correctional Institution.
Although he will never make more than $1 an hour as the lead painter in the Badger State Industries shop that produces license plates for the state of Wisconsin, Patterson considers himself to be one of the lucky ones.
However, the impact of a tepid economy could keep inmates like Patterson from acquiring vocational work skills that play a key role in keeping released
convicts from re-offending.
Already, job orders from state agencies depending on goods from BSI have slowed down, forcing Department of Corrections’ officials to scale back operations at the 15 industries within 11 correctional facilities throughout the state, including Waupun.
“Two years ago, we had 110-plus inmates employed with Badger State Industries,” said WCI Warden Michael Thurmer. “We’re limited by state law from selling to anyone other than government agencies, the state university system and non-profits. And
with the state budget being the way it is, there’s no additional funding to replace office furniture and things like that, so our orders are down.”
Without those jobs created by BSI, Thurmer said the number of jobless inmates could increase further in the institution that houses 1,250 inmates.
“Right now, we have over 400 inmates that don’t have a job or a programming assignment,” Thurmer said.
The nation’s unemployment crisis is reaching far inside prison walls on the federal level as well.
Since 2008, thousands of inmates have lost their jobs as federal authorities shutter and scale back operations at prison recycling, furniture, cable and
electronics assembly factories to try to make up $65 million in losses.
Slightly more than 7,000 federal prisoners have been cut from the work rolls in the past two years, and up to 800 more are expected to be dropped in the next several months, according to Federal Prison Industries records.
More than money
Patterson is one of 84 inmates housed at the state’s oldest prison who is employed through BSI, a vocational and work skills development program established in 1913 as a way to provide inmates the opportunity to develop skills and the work ethic
they need upon their release.
Those hoping to secure a job in the prison’s metal stamping department, metal furniture or office systems department must go through an actual a application and interview process for the coveted jobs just like their counterparts out in society..
Although the jobs start with pay at 20 cents an hour, prisoners who earn efficiency and productivity incentives can earn up to $1 an hour.
For those inmates with earnings, a percentage of wages can be taken out for restitution and child support costs, with the remainder going into the
inmate’s account to be used for personal items.
More important than money, inmates are learning a variety of skills that will go a long way in helping them overcome the odds of finding a job on the outside once they’re released from prison. BSI provides inmates with skills in machinery operation, production and handling raw materials, as well as inventory and quality control.
“Those who are certified in welding through one of our vocational programs sponsored by MPTC can put those skills to use in an actual job setting
through BSI,” Thurmer said.
A couple of years ago, the prison added a caveat to the hiring process for BSI: inmates seeking a job must have a high school diploma or a HSED.
“Because of this, the number of inmates who have received their HSED has increased significantly,” Thurmer said. “This requirement promotes to them just how important that HSED is once they’re released into the community.”
Sense of frustration
Thurmer said there was a long waiting list of inmates that exceeds the total number of BSI jobs available. Many who have already cleared the hurdles of obtaining an HSED and a certification through the vocational programs find themselves
waiting and waiting — and becoming clearly frustrated.
“They don’t understand that the economy is sluggish out in the community and is impacting how many orders we get in,” Thurmer said. “They’ve done everything that’s been asked of them in order to get into position to be hired by BSI, and we don’t
have jobs for them. And it becomes a morale issue.”
Bryan Lowry, president of the federal prison system employees association, said there are fears that cuts could spark inmate unrest in already-overcrowded
institutions where jobs — however menial — have kept prisoners occupied.
“This is a big concern for us,” said Lowry, referring to the increase in inmate assaults on prison workers.
Thurmer says that decreased job opportunities have also impacted the morale inside of his prison.
“Anytime you have inmates in unassigned status where they’re not engaged in programming or work, it can become a security issue. Every inmate that we can get out of the cell and keep active is a positive from a morale standpoint,” Thurmer said.
Inmates fortunate to have learned a skill and developed a good work ethic behind prison walls stand a better chance of successfully reintegrating back into society once released, Thurmer said.
“(Inmates) have something in hand along with real work experience that they can hand to an employer, making them more likely to be able to secure a position,” Thurmer said. “It’s essential for us to give them the tools they need to be successful when they go back out into the community. If we don’t, the chances for success for these men and women are very slim.”
BADGER STATE INDUSTRIES
Badger State Industries is the Wisconsin Department of Corrections training and work skills development program.
While teaching manufacturing and production techniques to inmate employees, BSI provides products to state, county, municipal and non-profit agencies.
BSI operates 15 industries within 11 correctional facilities across the state, producing license plates, office furniture for state offices and the University of
Wisconsin, signage for state highways and parks, and upholstery products.
While many prisons operate taxpayer-funded vocational programs, the Bureau of Correctional Enterprises, which includes BSI, is self-supporting.
The prison farms at Fox Lake and Waupun correctional institutions provide milk for the DOC. The milk is processed at the Waupun Dairy Plant near Burke Corrections Center in Waupun.
Taycheedah Correctional Institution in Fond du Lac employs female inmates in screen print, embroidery and sublimation industries. Office systems, metal furniture and license plates are produced at Waupun Correctional Institution.
To see products produced at state correctional facilities, visit www.buybsi.com/im
Source: FDL Reporter