California’s prison industries program, which includes ventures from coffee-roasting to furniture-making, is the largest such U.S. effort to give felons a life after lockup. Yet Governor Jerry Brown’s very success in reducing inmate overcrowding is endangering it.
Prison labor, once best known for making license plates, has grown to 57 factories doing such work as modular building construction, toner cartridge recycling, shoemaking and juice packaging, according to its latest annual report. Convicts supply closed-captioning for television and transcribe movies into Braille.
“Everyone says the most valuable product we put out there is a person who’s not going to go back and re-offend, who has job skills and dedication,” said Josh Bayer, who manages the prison industries at the California Institution for Men, Chino. “That’s our product: rehabilitation.”
Yet even with workers paid 35 cents to 95 cents an hour, business is off. Sales are exclusively to state and local governments, almost all under budget pressure. The biggest customer, the Corrections Department, has 43,000 fewer inmates since 2006, many shifted to county jails to ease crowding. Revenue slipped 18 percent to $173 million in the fiscal year that ended in June, from almost $210 million five years earlier.
“We are statutorily required to be self-sufficient,” said Eric Reslock, a spokesman for the California Prison Industry Authority. Some work programs have been scaled back and all are being reviewed, he said.
To be sure, most inmates don’t work. About 7,000 of the more than 132,000 prisoners are in industrial programs, according to the annual report.
Brown, a 75-year-old Democrat, signed a bill in 2011 to transfer felons convicted of nonviolent, low-level crimes to jails or alternatives such as electronic monitoring, after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s order to reduce the population because of inadequate health care.
As recently as 2008, California had 173,670 inmates, the highest number in the U.S., according to a 2010 report by the Pew Center on the States. The prisons, once at 175 percent of capacity, are down to about 150 percent, according state records. The court ordered the numbers reduced to 137.5 percent of capacity.
Brown’s inmate transfers, known as realignment, hit prison industries in two ways: by reducing the pool of convicts who package juice, sew shirts and stamp license plates; and by reducing demand for products sold back to prisons, Reslock said.
Further shifts to county lockups are expected to reduce prison industry revenue by another $5.5 million for the year that ends June 30, according to the prison industry authority’s most recent annual report.
There’s no reason for California’s prison industries to retrench, said Martin Horn, a former New York City corrections commissioner who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. California’s prison workforce has room to grow, and the market for products such as school desks and filing cabinets is “virtually inexhaustible.”
“They will need to move into other municipal markets,” Horn said by telephone.
From fiscal 2007 through 2011, so-called graduates of the prison industries program had a recidivism rate of 7.13 percent, “the lowest of any rehabilitative program,” according to the prison industry board.
As state prisoners move to county jails, some vocational programs are going with them. Sacramento County began teaching welding in jails in January 2012 in response to the shift of inmates, said sheriff’s Captain Milo Fitch. Sacramento County also is starting a program in which inmates will refurbish toner cartridges from printers and copy machines and sell them to county departments, Fitch said.
“We’re looking at the needs of local public safety,” Fitch said by telephone. “One of the key factors in preventing recidivism is ensuring that people can get a job on the outside.”
Los Angeles County, the most populous in California, has about 7,200 of its 18,100 prisoners in work programs, up from 1,500 a year ago, said Lieutenant LaMar LaFave of the county’s Education Based Incarceration program. Inmates make clothing, run a printing shop and weld metal, he said.
At the Chino prison, home to about 4,700 inmates in facilities ranging from minimum to maximum security about 35 miles (60 kilometers) east of Los Angeles, prisoners pasteurize and package fruit juice and wash laundry. Elsewhere in the state, convicts bake bread, roast coffee and harvest eggs.
“If our program is shut down, the money they think they would save, they would spend putting inmates back into prison,” said Fred Johnson, who teaches felons to be commercial divers in Chino. “People leave here with the confidence in themselves that they can survive on the outside.”
Started in 1972, the diving school isn’t a revenue-generating enterprise, making it more vulnerable to budget pressure. The program was shut by cuts once before, from 2003 to 2006, and Johnson is concerned it may happen again. Reslock said there are no plans to do so.
The diving school, the only one of its kind in a U.S. prison, has just 16 students. It’s not for everyone, Johnson said as his students did sit-ups and push-ups near an in-ground pool.
“Here, you have to give 150 percent, all of the time,” he said.
Khamby Xanavixay, 26, who has been in prison since 2002, when he was arrested for robbing a Sacramento drug store, said he’ll be ready to do underwater welding when he’s released in 2015. While some jobs in the field pay more than $100,000 a year, Xanavixay said money isn’t his primary motivator.
“Since I’ve been in this program, it has given me a goal and an objective and something to do when I go home,” he said in an interview. “The money isn’t as much of a deal for me. This is my passion.”