When you think of prison work programs, you might conjure up scenes from Orange is the New Black’s first season when Piper Chapman checks out a screwdriver from the tool crib. (Spoiler alert: she misplaces it; plot lines develop, and the screwdriver is recovered by the end of the season.)
In the Centennial State, though, these programs look a little bit different.
The Department of Corrections’ Colorado Correctional Industries (CCI) employs about 1,600 inmates a day in 37 shops that do a little of, well, everything. They harvest fresh-water lobsters, build custom motorcycles, fight fires, and make license plates. Some of those businesses are quite profitable—license plates and tabs brought in about $970,000 in 2014, but furniture and pizza manufacturing both saw losses.
CCI’s operations were the subject of an extensive 71-page state audit report, which was released in January. The document detailed discrepancies and information gaps within the program, writing:
“We found that CCI is not entirely self-funded and lacks adequate controls to ensure that its operations are solely funded from the sale of correctional industry goods and services.”
Another section states:
“Neither DOE nor CCI were able to explain how they arrived at the dollar amounts in the letters of agreement, and the agreements do not appear to be based on actual costs or the specific services provided by CCI.”
What the audit doesn’t describe at length are the social concerns associated with running a business in a correctional facility. First, inmates are paid far less than a minimum wage, which courts have—for the most part—upheld. Some liken this practice to slave labor while others say that the programs provide viable life-skill and resume-building experiences.
There are also unique overhead costs in a correctional facility. For example, instead of having a centralized location for one product, you may have several locations across the state at different facilities. “There are built-in inefficiencies,” says Jack Laughlin, CCI’s service division manager. “If a facility is locked down we lose a day’s production.” Maintaining tool control (see above) can use up an hour or two of work each a day.
Despite those challenges, Laughlin is in the camp that believes the work experiences help inmates. “A lot of the offenders we see don’t have any job skills,” he says. He talks about establishing “soft skills,” the type of business acumen that doesn’t earn a certificate, like showing up to work on time or talking professionally to a supervisor. CCI regularly reviews its program types, occasionally adding business branches based on inmate interest or skills. Some ideas work (dog rescue training) and others flounder (recycling ink cartridges). “We kiss a lot of frogs, but not all of them become princes,” Laughlin says.
CCI’s jobs are filled by offenders with a high school education or GED and who are “program compliant,” which typically means they’ve cooperated with treatment plans (medication, anger management training, and so on), and have been free of incident reports for at least six months. Even with such restrictions, Laughlin says CCI’s jobs are sought-after. “Offenders want to be in the program,” he says. “It is a place to go to be normal. I think everyone wants to work.”
Bonus: While the state audit illuminated some glaring issues with reporting and profitability, CCI was able to track down information for 5280’s request on how and what they are producing. Here are 10 things you didn’t know you needed to know about CCI:
320 | Number of Colorado flags made in 2014
10 | Tons of grapes, including four different varieties, harvested in 2014
20 to 30 | Average number of saddles produced each month
17,645 | “Furniture seating pieces” produced in 2014 (think: chairs and seating areas)
76 | Average pounds of milk produced daily at the cow dairy
42 | Number of days “out on fire” in 2014 for the fire crew (during the 2012’s fire season the crew was out for 246 days)
1,500 | Number of foot lockers produced in 2014
1,500 to 2,000 | Number of tilapia harvested per day, four days a week
200 | Number of 6- to 8-ounce fresh-water lobsters sold in 2014
105,732 | Number of pizzas sold in 2014