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Inmates turn hard time into productive time

Some prisoners at SCI Dallas among those gaining skills and some cash.

An inmate at SCI Dallas makes a T-shirt used in the prison system.

Clark Van Orden/The Times Leader

Inmates at SCI Dallas make prison uniforms in the Correctional Industries program.

Clark Van Orden/The Times Leader

It’s 9:35 on a recent morning and the employees of Big House Products are abuzz with activity.

On one side of the room, 40 sewing machine operators zip through fabric, on their way to producing roughly 1,000 T-shirts.

On the other side, several men run a foam mattress into a machine, compressing it to a fraction of an inch thick so that it can flow into a vinyl cover that’s then sewn shut.

It’s a scene much like you would see in any other factory in Northeastern Pennsylvania. But these workers are not like others.

They are here not by choice, but by the mandate of the state, which imprisoned them for crimes they committed.

Incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution at Dallas, these men are among approximately 1,470 inmates statewide who take part in the Correctional Industries program run by the State Department of Corrections.

Correctional Industry programs have been part of the DOC for more than 100 years. Initially inmates produced license plates for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. Over the decades the program has expanded into many other areas, said Marc D. Goldberg, statewide director of the program.

Today SCI Dallas is one of 16 state correctional facilities that produce products ranging from hand soap to furniture to eyeglasses. Three additional prisons are set to open new production facilities within the next few years.

Last year, the factories produced a combined total of $28.2 million in product sales, netting the DOC a profit of $1.4 million. Sales so far this year are even better at $34.2 million, producing a profit of $3.4 million to date. The factories at SCI Dallas have produced a profit of $166,814 so far this year.

“It’s one of the best programs in the state that taxpayers don’t pay for,” Goldberg said.

Not only does the program save the state money, it gives inmates skills they can utilize when they’re released, Goldberg said.

“We’re giving them work experience so that when they’re released they’ll be able to get a job and support themselves. That’s an important factor in keeping someone from returning to prison,” Goldberg said. “There is a level of enthusiasm you see. They are interested in doing a good job. It’s more than just here doing time. They’re getting something out of it.”

SCI Dallas employs 86 inmates and five staff members in two factories. The mattress factory produces beds for use in the prison and other state prisons, as well as a more upscale model that is used in college dorm rooms. The garment factory produces uniforms for inmates and guards, as well as T-shirts, underwear and a select number of other items.

Products produced by all Correctional Industries factories are used in house and sold to other state-run facilities, including other prisons and state universities. Sales are not permitted to the private sector because it would create unfair competition, given the low cost of labor, Goldberg said.

Inmates earn from 19 cents to 42 cents per hour, depending on the type of industry and length of service at the job. They are also eligible to receive a bonus if their factory shows a profit.

The jobs are highly coveted among inmate populations. Waiting lists can reach 100 inmates at times, said Dave Bilko, who manages the SCI Dallas factory.

Money earned is placed in an administrative account. Any restitution or court costs inmates owe are deducted first. Anything that is left over can be used to pay for various, nonstandard items offered at the prison, such as a television and cable and commissary items.

Several inmates interviewed during a recent tour of the factory said the money is only part of their motivation. The inmates, who are identified by first name only as per DOC policy, said the job keeps their minds active, which makes doing their time easier.

“If you lay around all day it makes the time go slower. This makes you feel like a viable human being again,” said Scott, 44, of Kutztown, who is serving a life sentence.

Scott is one of several inmates who handle the business end of the factory, including billing, shipping and payroll.

Every aspect of the business must be meticulously documented. On this day, Gregory, 53, of Bucks County, was working on a spreadsheet that calculates the cost to make the goods and compares it to the price for which the items were sold.

Gregory is 27 years into a life sentence. Learning to do book work was a challenge, he said, but he loves his job.

“It’s mind boggling keeping up with everything,” he said. “If you want to live comfortably, this is the best job to have.”

Most inmates use money earned to buy comfort items or send money home to family. Others have built up a substantial savings account.

Bernard, 51, of Chester, has served 21 years for a rape conviction. Between his work at the sewing factory and other prison jobs he’s saved close to $6,500, he said.

Most of his family has died since he’s been in prison. He’s up for parole in December. If it’s granted, the money will give him a great start on the outside.

“It takes a lot of sacrifice. You can’t enjoy the commissary and other stuff inmates buy,” he said.

Goldberg acknowledged jobs at some institutions are more transferable to the outside world than others. SCI Cambridge Springs operates an optical lab. Those inmates have a better chance of finding work on the outside compared to inmates who work in garment factories, few of which still exist in the U.S. today.

That doesn’t mean the jobs don’t have any benefit, Goldberg said.

“The important part is teaching them work ethic, showing up for work every day, working as a team, obeying factory rules and getting the satisfaction of completing a job and earning a paycheck,” he said.

Correctional Industries sites On the Web

SCI Cambridge Springs – Optical lab -- 16 inmates.

SCI Mercer – Signs, engraving and stickers -- 34 inmates.

SCI Houtzdale – Commissary distribution center -- 75 inmates.

SCI Fayette – License plates, metal products -- 150 inmates.

SCI Greene – Garments, embroider – 60 inmates.

SCI Smithfield – Garments – 50 inmates.

SCI Somerset – Laundry, 140 inmates.

SCI Huntingdon – Garments, printing, soap and detergent – 260 inmates.

SCI Coal Township – Chairs, wood, furniture, sheds, upholstery – 50 inmates.

SCI Mahanoy – Commissary distribution center – 75 inmates.

SCI Graterford – Garments, hosiery, shoes, textiles, underwear – 270 inmates.

SCI Rockview – Correctional Industries freight – 6 inmates.

SCI Muncy – Garments – 35 inmates.

SCI Waymart – Garments, personal care kits – 120 inmates.

SCI Retreat – Laundry – 42 inmates.

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