Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Industrious prisoners

When I was a kid, we all knew that prisoners made license plates. And every once in a while there’d be some small frisson of excitement when a plate with a “bad word” was found. We never actually learned what the word was, just that it was plenty bad. Were these rogue plates discovered by the prisons? The Registry of Motor Vehicles? Or some lucky motorist who pulled their license plate out of its wax paper sleeve, only to discover that it contained the F-word?

You actually couldn’t blame the prisoners. How boring to be stamping license plates, day in, day out, and never getting to drive a car bearing one of your plates. All for way, way, way less than the minimum wage.

Anyway, prisoners are pretty industrious. According to an article I saw in The Economist (and using their very British spelling):

At the federal level, the Bureau of Prisons operates a programme known as Federal Prison Industries that pays inmates roughly $0.90 an hour to produce everything from mattresses, spectacles,road signs and body armour for other government agencies, earning $500m in sales in fiscal 2016. Prisoners have produced official seals for the Department of Defence and Department of State, a bureau spokesman confirmed. In many prisons, the hourly wage is less than the cost of a chocolate bar at the commissary, yet the waiting list remains long—the programme still pays much more than the $0.12-0.40 earned for an hour of kitchen work. (Source: The Economist)

And most states get in on the act as well. California prisoners work as meat cutters. In Idaho, they roast potatoes. In the 1990’s, female prisoners in South Carolina made lingerie for Victoria’s Secret. And, not to be outdone, prisoners in Massachusetts produce:

…Braille transcription, business cards, clothing, decals, embroidery, eyeglasses, flags, furniture, letterhead, license plates, metal products, pillows, printing, sheets, & pillow cases, signs, silk screening, towels, & face cloths, mattresses & box springs, and wastebaskets. These products are sold primarily to state and local government entities and are also available for sale to private entities. (Source: Mass Department of Corrections)

Massachusetts prisoners also make binders, presumably the ones that our former governor (and thwarted presidential candidate) Mitt Romney stuffed full of women. (I know it’s hard to recall the quaint old days when there were election kertuffles over claims that one had “binders full of women.”)

Most of the items produced by our Massachusetts prisoners seem sensible, but I’m sitting here wondering what state and local government entities are doing with embroidery. Maybe embroidered items get sold to private entities. And, sexist me, I’m having a hard time envisioning male prisoners sitting there with their embroidery hoops, making French knots. This is not just the sexist me, by the way, it’s the child embroiderer me – the one who knew the blanket stitch, the feather stitch, and how to make a French knot.

The reasoning behind having prisoners occupying their time with useful activity is fine. Here’s the reasoning from my very own Commonwealth:

In an effort to develop strong work habits and employable skills, MassCor operates manufacturing plants at various facilities. MassCor employs more than 350 inmates in several institutions where emphasis is placed on developing strong work habits and employable skills that can be used by the offender when he/she is returned to the community.

I don’t know just how transferrable pillow case making is to the real world, textiles having fled our fair state decades ago. But the work habit intent makes sense. And if this helps the state and city governments save on what they’re spending on pillowcases and box springs, well, that’s all well and good. (Even if I do have to wonder how much the city of Boston spends on pillow cases and box springs in any given year.)

Whether these justifications prove out is another question. There aren’t a ton of metrics to support the case.

But there’s something a bit off-putting at the idea of private industry profiting by paying next to nothing to a captive workforce. I’m pretty sure that most of the work schemes are voluntary. Still, something more than $.90 an hour seems in order. In the summer of 1967, I made $1.40 an hour working in a shoe factory. Surely embroidery, an altogether higher-skill task than cleaning rubber cement off of combat boots, should be worth at least $2.00 and hour in this day and age.

There was no mention of Maine in the article, but I rather like their approach. Oh, I have no idea what they pay their prisoners, but they sell their wares in a uniquely wonderful and completely oddball retail outlet in Thomaston, Maine – right on the main drag in town, so you can’t miss it. There they sell all kinds of items made out of wood, and a few soft goods (tee-shirts, ball caps). You can’t buy their products online, but you can check out the gallery here.

I’ve been there a couple of times, and have a pair of toaster tongs to show for it.

It’s just such a Maine thing. Nothing fancy. In keeping with Maine’s being the Pine Tree State, and having a lot of forests. The products are old-fashioned, simple, well made. (Still using those tongs I got a long time ago.)

Other than for a couple of holidays (Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Year), a few days for inventory, and snow days, they’re open daily, and if you’re in that neck of the woods, it’s definitely worth a stop and shop.

Are Maine’s recidivism levels any better than other states? I don’t have a clue. But I do like to think that someone making toy wooden fire engines that are sold in a store that’s open almost every day has a better shot at successful life on the outside than someone getting paid exploitative wages that put profits in the pockets of private industry.

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