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Program aims for inmate jobs

November 01, 2004|by DON AINES

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

CHAMBERSBURG, PA. - Each day in Los Angeles County, Calif., hundreds of inmates go to work inside prison walls doing laundry, making uniforms and printing documents, saving taxpayers about $6 million a year, according to Doug Retig.

Retig, the director of Jail Enterprises for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, was in Chambersburg Thursday for the Franklin County Jail Industries kickoff breakfast. Retig said Los Angeles can gain from the planning done in Franklin county.

"I'm going to model ours after Franklin County's," he said of the Jail Industries Advisory Committee, made up of representatives from county government, courts, nonprofit agencies and businesses. Retig wants a similar committee to explore industry options to serve businesses and nonprofit groups outside county government.

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"We're looking for new industries and new revenue streams ... but we don't want to do it at the expense of private industry," he said. About 1,000 inmates are employed now, out of an average daily population of 20,000, he said.

"We have the pieces in place that we're ready to go right now," Franklin County Prison Warden John Wetzel said. He is looking for industries that want inmates to do jobs such as bulk mailing, indexing, product assembly and computer data entry.

"I don't think computers are as intimidating to our population as people might think," he said.

The county has a work-release program through which inmates travel to jobs outside the prison. Wetzel said others are assigned jobs within the prison doing laundry, food preparation and other tasks for which they are paid $2 a day, half of which is deducted for fines and costs.

Once jail industries are up and running, Wetzel said, participating inmates would receive a "fair wage" based on the skills involved. One requirement of the program is that work done by inmates not be in competition with local businesses, he said.

Craig Dowd, program manager of the Montgomery County, Md., Offender Re-entry Employment Program, said inmates save that county and nonprofit groups money with printing, document scanning, bulk mailing and other services. They also are taught "work habits and work skills so they won't come back and see us so often."

Those habits can be as basic as personal hygiene and using correct English, Dowd said.

"We have a lot of employers who are looking for entry-level employees with the necessary soft skills," said Franklin County Area Development Corp. President L. Michael Ross. A jail industry program could train people to fill such positions, he said.

About 50 people attended the breakfast in the Wood Center, where inmates Ricky Feo and Edward Reid cooked omelets to order.

"I've been in the food service industry for five years," Feo said as he flipped an omelet.

"I'm a factory man," Reid said.

"It's like a job fair in reverse," said Rod Miller, a contractor with the U.S. Department of Justice who assists in developing jail industry programs. Government and nonprofit agencies and industries were invited to get an idea of what a jail industry program can offer them, he said.

The event featured exhibits from other programs, such as Pennsylvania Correctional Industries, the state prison program that markets furniture under the name Big House Products. The Philadelphia Prison System sent catalogs for its furniture, custom framing, culinary and graphics products.

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