Inmates Paying Debt To Society On Minimum Wage Idaho Prisoners Repackage Products For Private Industry

Picture Idaho prison inmates hard at work, repairing and repackaging products to be sold at “World’s Greatest Deals” stores.

It’s happening already at a private prison in Minnesota managed by the Corrections Corporation of America. Now the CCA is planning to set up a similar program at Idaho’s large new private prison.

The company was the successful bidder among eight seeking to build and operate Idaho’s next prison. Its bid includes plans for an industry program operated by Jacobs Trading Co., like the one in Minnesota.

“Being in the closeout business, this is the first deal that I’ve been involved in that is really a win-win situation for everybody,” said Ralph Klein, president of World’s Greatest Deals, a division of Jacobs.

Inmates earn minimum wage, and part of their pay is withheld for taxes, restitution, victim compensation, child support, fines and the like.

Klein, an enthusiastic Minneapolis entrepreneur, said his company buys customer returns and other unwanted products, repairs and repackages them and then sells them through its 11 Midwestern stores or its wholesale business. Otherwise, the products would go to garbage dumps, Klein said, and consumers would miss out on the chance to buy them at big discounts.

“Say there’s a set of six glasses and one was chipped - all six are getting destroyed today. We take and destroy the chipped one, and sell the others individually,” Klein said.

According to CCA’s bid, a 43,750-square-foot structure would be built on the grounds of the new Boise prison to house the program.

Like current industry programs at Idaho state prisons, it would be self-supporting. But because it’s set up with a private company under the federal Prison Industries Enhancement program, the program can ship its products across state lines. And wages far exceed the 22 cents to $1.35 per hour Idaho inmates earn working for existing state prison industries.

Idaho’s prison industry program is operated by the state Department of Correction. It produces license plates and manufactures office furniture, which is then sold to state agencies and nonprofit companies. The wages are not subject to withholding.

Idaho has 25 inmates at its St. Anthony work camp who work at an off-site company through a Prison Industries Enhancement program. The state is hoping to attract a private firm to start another prison industry program in an existing building at the state prison complex in Boise.

Under federal guidelines, up to 80 percent of an inmate’s wages in such programs can be withheld to pay the his obligations, from taxes and fines to child support and room and board.

“It makes the inmates responsible,” said Hoyt Brill, warden of the Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton, Minn. That private prison, which houses 201 Idaho inmates along with others from Colorado, North Dakota and Minnesota, has about 110 inmates now working for Jacobs Trading, with another 40 jobs about to be filled.

Between the industry program and other prison jobs, from groundskeeping to furniture making, Prairie typically has about 87 percent of its inmates working.

Brill said inmates who work full-time are easier to manage, and gain job skills they’ll need when they get out of prison.

“We just don’t hear much from those inmates in a negative way,” Brill said. “There’s a lot of interest in the jobs.”

Those who work for Jacobs Trading must be free of disciplinary violations for six months before applying for the jobs, and are subject to monthly job evaluations.

Klein said his company also requires the inmates to either have a high school education, or pursue one in night classes at prison while they work for the company.

Jacobs Trading Co. has a similar program at a state prison in Bismarck, N.D., and is talking with three other states about starting up programs in their prisons.

Klein said he and his partners have been in the closeout business for close to 30 years, and started buying returned products in 1978. They formed Jacobs Trading Co. in 1989.

“There’s a lot of returned product out there that needs to stop going to landfills,” he said. “It needs to go back into the consumer’s hands.”

Some of the products he buys have simply been opened, and need repackaging. Others may have been used, or are missing a part. The company refurbishes the products by taking parts from several to make one, or making similar simple repairs.

“There’s nobody out there in the country that’s really doing it, and you can’t afford to do it on today’s labor market,” Klein said. “So we came up with an idea.”

Though Klein said it’s hard to hire people at the $5.15 an hour minimum wage in today’s market, inmates don’t complain. “Plus, besides that, it’s really providing a service,” he said.

He plans to write letters of recommendation for good employees, and the company may hire some on permanently once they’ve done their time.

“We’re going to have 2 million prisoners in this country by the turn of the century. Do you realize that? That’s a lot of prisoners,” he said. “Somebody’s gotta do something to try to help them out and perform a service for society, and that’s what this does.”

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