Wyoming penitentiary expands garment factory as prisons look to teach job skills, work ethic

RAWLINS, Wyo. (AP) — Richard Edwards hunched over a sewing machine and stitched a pocket onto a new shirt, one of many to pass through his hands on a recent workday.

The 64-year-old has become a skilled tailor from his years in the trade — all of which came during his imprisonment at the Wyoming State Penitentiary.

Edwards is one of 27 inmates employed in the prison’s expanded garment factory. The Department of Corrections opened the new 7,800-square-foot shop last month with the goal of putting more inmates to work and making the state’s prison industries self-sustaining.

“It doesn’t matter to me whether I’m in here or not — I’ve always had a need to be productive,” said Edwards, serving two life sentences for a 1996 conviction of second-degree murder. “Because I ain’t ever going to leave here, I’m going to be as productive as I can be until my health won’t let me.”Corrections officials say they’re committed to providing work opportunities for inmates, both “lifers” like Edwards and shorter-term inmates who will need job skills and a good work ethic to build a new life when they’re released.

“Ninety-seven percent of inmates will eventually return to the streets,” said Michael J. Murphy, warden at the Rawlins prison. “We know that those inmates who are released from prison with a marketable skill and are able to get and keep a job are far less likely to go back to prison than those who don’t have those things. For the others, we need to give them a reason to get up in the morning.”

The Corrections Department started construction on the $4.2 million building in late 2004 and finished in July, spokeswoman Melinda Brazzale said. Along with the garment shop, the 18,000-square-foot building is home to a woodworking shop, which is not yet open, and classroom space.

Garment Supervisor Steve Gibson said his goal is employ up to 60 inmates per shift at the garment factory and to start a second shift within two years.

The new shop is a 10-fold expansion of a smaller garment shop the penitentiary opened in 2006, Gibson said. The shop makes products ranging from bed linens to fleece jackets and kitchen wear. The bulk of its work is clothing for the state’s correctional institutions, and department uniforms. It also does some contract work for private businesses.

Jobs at the garment factory don’t come easily. Gibson said he handles hiring as he would outside of the prison. Employees must have at least a General Equivalency Diploma, which can be earned through classes at the prison. Applicants go through an interview process, and new hires are placed on a 90-day probationary period, he said.

“Because of industries coming in and requiring it, there’s more applications for the education program for inmates to get their GEDs,” Gibson said.

Once they’re hired, the inmates’ pay depends on their skill level. Inmates who work on jobs specifically for state institutions are paid $30 to $90 a month. Inmates who work on contract jobs for private companies make $5.85 to $14 an hour under a federal program called the Prison Industries Enhancement Certification Program.

The inmates receive 20 percent of their pay and 15 percent is placed in a mandatory savings account, Gibson said. The remainder is split among child support payments, fines and restitution, a crime victims’ relief fund and prison operations.

Currently, 37 state and 4 county-based certified correctional industry programs operate in the United States, according to the Bureau of Justice Assistance.

Wyoming corrections officials say the garment shop is part of a larger effort to increase training for prisoners around the state. The state penitentiary is also home to a print shop. At the Wyoming Women’s Center in Lusk, inmates operate a tilapia fish farm and a commercial laundry facility. At the Honor Farm in Riverton, inmates build modular homes for use as part of an affordable housing program.

When it authorized the prison industries program, the Wyoming Legislature set a deadline for the program to become self-sustaining by June 30, 2010. Bil Carter, the DOC’s industries manager, said that means the industries should be supporting their own operations and bringing in enough revenue to cover managers’ pay.

“I’m encouraged,” Carter said. “We’re committed to getting it done.”

At the Rawlins penitentiary, the garment shop is gearing up to make thousands of items to outfit the new state prison in Torrington, which is scheduled to open in 2010. Gibson is working to hire more inmates, and old-timers like Edwards are prepared to teach them how to make clothes.

“When you see somebody accomplish something like that and learn something — that spark of excitement they have — a lot of us old hands can see that, and that makes everything worthwhile,” Edwards said.




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