July 15, 2001, Sunday


N.J. LAW; Bank Jobs Lead To Odd Jobs

By CAREN CHESLER (NYT) 1051 words


Few people who call the state Division of Travel and Tourism to find out where they can pick strawberries or locate the best campground realize that the woman answering their questions is serving time.

Five days a week, 27 women who have committed crimes from burglary to aggravated assault sit in front of computer screens at the travel and tourism center in the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton Township -- headsets firmly in place -- answering calls for 55 cents a day. They read from a prepared script, consulting the events board in the room and ultimately trying to get the caller's name and address to mail a brochure.

This is one of the many jobs performed by state prisoners. They can also bake cupcakes, plant flowers and rehabilitate houses. There is a metal fabrication shop where they make lockers and bed frames for prison cells, some of which have been sold to other prison systems. In the sewing shop, they produce the standard issue shoes, socks, underwear, khaki shirts and pants, knit hats and orange jumpsuits that prisoners wear.

At a wood shop, they make brooms and mops for state and municipal governments and lifeguard stands for the beaches in Cape May. Inmates also produce many of the Stop, Yield and One-Way signs posted around the state. Or they operate a print shop that produces business cards and letterhead stationery for the courts, some of which may have been used to put them in jail in the first place.

The program saves the Department of Corrections alone about $1 million a year. Prisoners also work in food service, which was privatized several years ago. Inmates do everything from cooking to cutting meat in the butcher shop -- though prison officials are careful not to let any cleavers leave the premises.

''We do a real good job of controlling the tools and searching inmates well before they leave, particularly in the wood and metal shop,'' said Leonard Black, who heads the Bureau of State Use Industries.

Another program, the Community Labor Assistance Program, operates jobs outside the prison. Inmates are leased out to state and local governments in New Jersey to perform such odd jobs as picking up litter, landscaping and beach cleanup.

On any given day, 30 of the 120 work details are leased to the Department of Transportation. When Hurricane Floyd ravaged the central part of the state two years ago, sending furniture floating into the streets, inmates were dispatched to towns like Bound Brook to help clean up the debris. Last year, two details were sent to Ellis Island and worked for three months to clear away decades of vegetation that had grown around an old hospital that was to be restored.

This year, a detail has been working with Habitat For Humanity, rehabilitating abandoned houses in Trenton to be used for affordable housing.

''When they're doing something that is a direct benefit to the community, it breaks down barriers, barriers about people who are locked up,'' said William Freeman, director of the Community Labor Assistance Program.

At any one time, about 3,000 of the state's approximately 30,000 inmates are working full-time jobs. Sex offenders and arsonists are barred from the program, and those convicted of murder are precluded from working outside.

Despite the pitifully low pay, the jobs are coveted positions. Inmates earn $1.40 to $8 a day, depending on the job. Cooks, for instance, start at $2.80 a day while a skilled carpenter could earn $8. With their room and board already paid for and few places to spend money, the paychecks can add up.

But even more, the jobs give the inmates an opportunity to help the time pass and learn a trade. Jobs outside the prison walls -- where they can smell the grass and see a bit of sky that isn't obscured by razor wire -- are the most coveted of all. And for every five days they work, a day is taken off their sentence.

Outside details work in groups of 10, with one corrections officer for every 10 inmates. In the last two and a half years, fewer than 10 inmates have escaped, Mr. Freeman said, and department officials noted that were all captured a short time later. Department officials declined to elaborate except to say inmates working outside are often near the end of their sentences and thus have a disincentive to flee.

In 33 states, inmates can be leased out to private companies. But in New Jersey, the private sector is off limits -- although the Department of Corrections would like to change that. Under federal law, inmates working for the private sector would have to be paid minimum wage, although the department could garnishee about 20 percent of their paychecks for room and board.

But organized labor frowns on these programs, insisting they steal jobs from union members, making politicians reluctant to touch them.

''The Whitman administration was not very supportive of it,'' Mr. Black said. ''We have not pursued it with the current administration, but I think it would be a good thing. We'd start small and see how it works.'

In Oregon, the prison system has a partnership with a private company that produces a line of jeans called Prison Blues. In California, inmates manufacture vats for a local microbrewery. South Carolina prisoners make telephone wiring and hardwood flooring. Toys ''R'' Us, Victoria's Secret and Eddie Bauer have also used prison labor, though most companies like to keep that fact secret.

Trans World Airlines was using youth offenders to book flights several years ago until an inmate used a woman's personal information to contact her. The program was immediately shut down.

''Most companies are worried about front-page headlines,'' said Carol Martindale-Taylor, director of professional services at the Correctional Industries Association. ''The fear is that if the public knew inmates were making these products, they wouldn't want them.''


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