It’s one of the state’s largest companies, with $50 million in sales each year. It pays workers less than a dollar an hour, but for every job that opens, ten people apply. You may never have heard of it, but chances are you own one of its products.
Virginia Correctional Enterprises makes license plates for state residents and the State Department in DC. It also molds model workers like 52-year-old Alexander Parker.
“The tag shop is just a better place to be," he says, " People down here treat you like a man. You feel like you’re free. When you go up there," he says, pointing to the cell block where he and more than 800 inmates are serving time, " you feel like you’re in the crazy house.”
Dave Hollis is the Tech Plant Manager. At the moment, he’s got three jobs available, and 22 men to choose from. Gang members need not apply.
“I don’t need a bunch of knuckleheads when I’m working around metal and equipment," Hollis explains. "That could be dangerous."
In addition to turning out 90 license plates a minute, Hollis is preparing prison inmates for work in the outside world.
“ Many of the men coming in have never worked a job in their lives. They just went right from the streets into prison, so what we’re working on is life skills – how to get up, be here, how to work with the other men,” he says, adding that jobs with Virginia Correctional Enterprises allow inmates to save some money.
Joseph Raisin, 48, has learned to weld, and he’s proud to be earning 80 cents an hour -- the top pay grade for prisoners. It allows him to save money to start a business when he's released, and Raisin says he can also send money to his elderly mother.
In addition to license plates, Correctional Enterprises makes furniture for college dorms, uniforms, T-shirts, jackets and cloth bags. Women held at the Fluvanna Correctional Center make prescription eye glasses, and here at Powhatan there’s a print shop that supplies all state agencies with letterhead, envelopes, booklets and brochures. 53-year-old Dennis Michael Titus is the intake clerk – making sure orders are properly filled.
“I’ve been doing this job for about 28 years now. I didn’t want to get on a machine, because me and machines don’t get along, but this type of work I’m perfectly suited for. I like this work, and it keep me on my toes.”
He has no relatives sending him money for the commissary, so this job keeps him in candy bars and snacks. Ditto for David Bond who earns $150 a month. In addition to covering his expenses, he’s been paying off court imposed fines and sending cash home for his kids. What's more, it’s work he enjoys.
“It’s very intricate and detailed work. It keeps you interested and focused and out of trouble, and it keeps your day filled," he explains.
And for 42-year-old Timothy Young, it's the best hope for escape. He loves being around the printed word and says books are the only way to leave prison life behind for a while.
All told, there are 20 manufacturing facilities at prisons around the state, employing 1,200 people. Despite strong sales, officials say the enterprise does not turn a profit, because administrative costs are high.
In an ideal world, Virginia Correctional Enterprises would be going out of business, but in Virginia where the Department of Corrections has the largest budget of any state agency, officials are talking about expanding by adding extra shifts.