This is Part I of a two-part report looking inside Oregon's prison workforce. Part II explores education and training programs offered to inmates.
On Sept. 9, hundreds flooded downtown Portland in protest of profits made off the backs of America’s inmates, who are typically paid less than a dollar an hour to work menial jobs. The demonstration was in solidarity with a national prison-worker strike calling for an end to “prison slavery.”
They call it slavery because, in essence, it is. The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery, but with one exception: as a punishment for a crime.
In 1994, Oregon voters doubled-down on prison labor when they passed Ballot Measure 17, the Prison Reform and Inmate Work Act.
The idea was that prisoners should work just as hard as the taxpayers who fund their incarceration, and they should spend their time in prison taking part in productive activities that will help them re-enter society with practical skills and work ethic.
In the years since, all physically able inmates have been required to engage in a full-time job or work-training program. While education and treatment programs can count toward an inmate’s 40-hour-per-week obligation, at least 20 hours per week must be work-related.
A banner on the Facebook event page for the Portland protest reads, “From Alabama to Oregon, Prisoners are Striking Nationwide September 9.”
In Portland, more than a dozen advocacy groups co-sponsored the march through downtown, targeting companies known to use prison labor, such as McDonald’s and Whole Foods.
And still the question remains: Are prisoners in Oregon exploited for corporate gains while making slave wages working menial jobs, or are they gaining skills that will help them succeed after their release?
Inmates at work
There are no private prisons in Oregon, and while protesters hit the streets of downtown Portland on Friday, Sept. 9, by and large, Oregon’s inmates showed up for work like any other day.
Two prison officials who oversee inmate work programs within the state both said they received no reports of inmate workers protesting or causing disruptions on the day of the nationwide strike.
Several fringe media outlets reported that Oregon State Penitentiary was on lockdown that day and that inmate workers in the kitchen at Deer Creek Correctional Institution in Madras either went on strike or were put on pre-emptive lockdown. The Oregon Department of Corrections, however, denied any participation in the strike within the walls of its institutions.
“There were not any disturbances related to the national prison work strike in September, or otherwise,” wrote Betty Bernt, DOC spokesperson, in response to an inquiry about those reports.
Oregon’s prisoners work in four different capacities: for the Department of Corrections in jobs needed for a prison’s daily operation, such as in the kitchen or janitorial; in a variety of work-training programs; on DOC-run work crews that primarily perform landscaping or cleaning duties on publicly owned lands; or for Oregon Corrections Enterprises.
Oregon Corrections Enterprises is a semi-independent state agency that was created to help the state’s prisons come into compliance with the requirement that all able-bodied inmates be put to work.
It operates a network of 28 businesses inside 11 of Oregon’s 14 state prisons.
It operates five laundry facilities and seven “contact centers,” or call centers, as well as a garment factory that makes the blue jeans prisoners wear; welding shops; sign fabrication, printing, scanning and mail service shops; upholstery, sewing and embroidery studios; and a furniture manufacturing business.
But more inmates work in the laundries and contact centers than all of Oregon Corrections Enterprise’s other operations combined.
Oregon Corrections Enterprises
Street Roots visited Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem. It’s a maximum-security prison housing 2,000 of the 14,700 inmates living in Oregon’s state-run correctional institutions.
It also houses Oregon Corrections Enterprises’ largest laundry and second-largest contact center.
In an expansive carpeted room that stretched from one end of the building to the other, the contact center’s rows of identical cubicles sat beneath fluorescent lighting and exposed air ducts. At each desk sat an inmate wearing a navy blue T-shirt, jeans and a headset watching a computer monitor, reciting his personalized sales pitch. Aside from the casual dress code and see-through walls of the cubicles, it was like any other office.
Like most mornings, inmates were contacting businesses in an attempt to get the person on the other end of the line to agree to accept an informational email about a business product, such as a software upgrade.
As easy as this sounds, anyone who’s ever worked in telemarketing will tell you: It isn’t. Inmates typically get a “yes” just two or three times a day.
“There is high turnover,” OSP contact center manager Bruce Potts said. “Not everybody likes telemarketers, and they can be very rude to people. These guys are told ‘no’ on a constant basis, so that’s a struggle.”
Potts had 85 inmates on staff that day, but said he’d like to be at full capacity with 110 agents.
For inmates who are successful, Potts said, a job in the call center is one of the most beneficial career opportunities that Oregon Corrections Enterprises offers. It’s also one of the best paying, with inmates typically earning about $150 to $200 a month. While it's well below minimum wage, it’s almost enough to buy a 13-inch TV or acoustic guitar from the prison commissary after one month of full-time work.
It’s also more than double what many other full-time inmate jobs in Oregon’s correctional institutions pay.
“A lot of the skills that they learn in here can transition to any kind of job and can help them in their day-to-day life too. They have to learn how to communicate, how to talk and how to take rejection,” Potts said, adding that many call centers on the outside are “felon-friendly.”
Dick Withnell, former owner of Withnell Dodge in Salem, said he’s hired several former inmates who had worked in the prison’s call center. He said they’ve been able to transfer the sales skills they learned telemarketing to selling cars at his dealership.
Withnell, who describes himself as ultra-conservative, chairs Oregon Corrections Enterprises’ Advisory Council. He said he believes inmates are learning the soft skills they need to be successful on the outside – skills such as punctuality and work ethic.
“The past 10, 20, 30 years, there’s been a change of philosophy for the end goal of lowering recidivism, and so instead of locking someone up and throwing the key away, it’s to teach and to give skill sets inside,” he said.
But to work, there have to be employers willing to hire former inmates after their release.
“To hire re-entry people, I believe you have to build the reason why,” Withnell said. “One is the transformation of an individual, but there is also a hard return on investment because once a person is hired and rebuilding himself, the recidivism rate drops significantly.”
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When inmate Jimmy Kashi, 37, first came to Oregon State Penitentiary, he said he worked as a “table wiper” in the kitchen for the Department of Corrections. Now, nearly a decade into his life sentence, he’s found stability and a job he said he enjoys in the call center.
He said initially the higher pay attracted him, but he also liked having the opportunity for advancement. In the four years he’s worked there, he’s reached the highest position available to inmates as one of the six trainers in the center, earning about $265 a month.
“Being able to reach out to people in the outside world from in here is definitely a godsend in my position,” he said, “because I am going to be incarcerated for a while. The ability to have conversations with people from all over the nation is absolutely exciting.”
Before Jon Meyer was incarcerated, he was a manager at Wal-Mart and also worked as a bar manager, a bouncer and a truck driver. He doesn’t plan on finding call center work when he’s released in three years.
He said working in the contact center helps him support his kids with the $150 per month he expects to earn. Luckily, he said, the mother of his children is financially stable.
While prison wages may be enough to buy items from the commissary, inmates we spoke with said it’s difficult to support their children or save enough money to have a substantial nest egg to help them get on their feet after release.
But for Meyer, going to work is like leaving prison.
“The environment is really awesome, the staff is really cool, so I enjoy it,” he said. “Outside of a job like this, inside these walls you tend to stick to your people, or people that you’re comfortable being around. So being out here, it expands your mind.”
Since the contact center at OSP opened in 2011, its only client has been Advice Brands, a Nashville, Tenn.-based marketing company that previously contracted with overseas call centers. Slowly, it began filling positions at OSP instead – so the call center isn’t competing with local jobs – and that’s important.
Oregon Corrections Enterprises strives to provide meaningful work opportunities that help inmates develop jobs skills that will help them enter Oregon’s workforce after their release. But by law, they must do that without offering products or services that compete with Oregon industries or creating jobs that would undercut the local workforce outside the prison.
Balancing these conflicting mandates “is very, very difficult,” said the agency’s administrator, Ken Jeske.
When we entered the laundry, the first thing we noticed was its size; it’s gigantic. Hundreds of inmates appeared to be hard at work in the labyrinth of commercial washing machinery and folding stations. Area hospitals send all their linens to OSP for cleaning.
The laundry floor manager, Damon Plattner, explained that most laundries this size outside of the prison system are fully automated, but he would never be able to assign the nearly 300 inmates he has working for him if the facility were modernized. He said entry-level laundry workers earn about $70 to $80 a month.
As we strolled from one end of the laundry to the other, Plattner explained the different jobs inmates were performing. Some of the jobs seemed tedious, but he said they have the ability to switch things up or work for another Oregon Corrections Enterprises operation, such as the furniture factory or welding shop.
“For many of them,” Plattner said, “it’s having a job for the first time and understanding that there is a requirement of (them) to do that job and keep that job.”
For motivated individuals, the laundry offers management positions and a maintenance program, where inmates learn to fix machinery, which Plattner said is a valued skill in any manufacturing plant.
Plattner said he’s also reinstating an electrical apprentice program where graduates can earn journeyman licenses, but the six- to eight-year program will take only two inmates at a time.
We sat down in the back office with Daniel Kirkland, 48. He’s serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole, and he said he’s found a meaningful career in the laundry as a lead technician.
“There’s a gambit of opportunities offered here,” he said, citing religious activities, drug and alcohol programs, clubs such as the Toastmasters and educational courses offered at OSP. He’s working on an associate degree through Chemeketa Community College, as well.
“It comes to the individual. They have to seize the moment,” Kirkland said. “To be honest, I think everything is here and in place. We have to take the initiative and do it.”
Kirkland previously spent 13 years at Two Rivers Correctional Institution, where, he said, there are fewer opportunities for inmates.
“I am very grateful, and I carry myself that way, but if I chose to live in that old mindset, I probably would be out in the yard, lifting weights, reading a book, watching TV, and letting life pass me by instead of being a part of it.”
As we spoke with inmates, it became clear that in Oregon’s prison system, there are opportunities for inmates who want to better themselves. We also heard repeatedly, from inmates and staff, that many inmates have a “prison mentality” and are not motivated to do anything beyond the bare minimum.
Additionally, some prisons have fewer programs than others, making the coveted jobs with Oregon Corrections Enterprises more difficult for inmates to acquire at some institutions.
A study of Washington State Correctional Industries, which is set up similarly to Oregon Corrections Enterprises, found that for every dollar spent on its programs, $4.77 is saved in future criminal justice costs. OCE commissioned a similar report with an expected release at the end of the year.
These programs are already limited in size, making it surprising that two of the most beneficial programs at OSP, the contact center and the automotive training program, were not at capacity.
While Oregon Corrections Enterprises is now engaging with a record number of inmates, that number is only 1,400 out of Oregon’s 12,470 work-eligible prison inmates.
And that law requiring that able-bodied inmates all work full time? Oregon Department of Corrections has never been in full compliance with that requirement.
Between January and November 2016, 67 percent to 71 percent of Oregon’s work-eligible inmates were in compliance with the law during any given month. One institution was as low as 29 percent in compliance.
Most of Oregon’s 8,800 working inmates are assigned directly to Department of Corrections jobs rather than Oregon Corrections Enterprises.
Roberta Angelozzi, who oversees the DOC-run inmate work programs, said: “The number of jobs that we can provide is the biggest issue. You take a small institution that doesn’t need 20 people in the kitchen or 50 people to run the maintenance program, and you have 400 inmates, it’s hard to come up with meaningful jobs to put people in.”
Inmate Jamie Pierce, 40, said he worked various jobs, “anything from line server to scullery, which is washing dishes, to floor crew,” during the three times he’s been incarcerated.
When asked if he gained any skills from these DOC jobs, he said, “Absolutely not.” But then he added that he liked working on a DOC work crew in the forest.
The DOC contracts with the state Department of Forestry, U.S. Forest Service and Oregon Department of Transportation, sending inmates to work alongside firefighters, rebuild trails, clean roadsides and perform other cleanup and landscaping-type duties. In rare cases, it will contract with private landowners in remote areas.
Now he’s been working for Oregon Corrections Enterprises in its laundry for six years.
“OCE saw something in me that I didn’t know I had. And so they kind of scooped me up, trained me how to do a job back there,” Pierce said.
“There needs to be more skills given to inmates, because this is my third time (incarcerated), and this is the only time that I’ve actually been given an opportunity to gain a skill, and this would be like a management skill,” he said. “I feel like if I was given that skill my first time, maybe I wouldn’t even be here this time.”
Although, he said, he didn’t learn a whole lot the 2 1/2 years he spent folding clothes before he moved up to management.
“I like the fact that they trust me, and that was missing in my life. I think I’m an asset here, and I think that they think I’m an asset here, so it’s a good feeling to come into work knowing that you’re needed,” Pierce said.
“Ever since I got this job, it’s made me think, maybe I can do something out there that’s productive, so I actually started school here at Chemeketa,” he said. “That one stepping stone made me think I could do more. And I should do more. So if I didn’t start here, I probably would have never done any of that.”
As a corrections counselor for the Multnomah County Department of Community Justice, it’s Steve Ciccotelli’s job to help former inmates find housing and employment upon release.
He said that among Oregon’s former inmates, “some do get valuable skills, and some just do not.”
Often, he said, former inmates lack confidence and self-worth, and they think the only work they can get mirrors the work they did in prison – janitorial, cooking or working in manufacturing, construction or warehouses.
“They’ll start disqualifying themselves before they even turned in an application. That’s the biggest barrier,” he said. “I tell them, don’t sell yourself short.”
But he is able to help inmates released with a “binder full of certificates” to transfer those accomplishments onto a resume. Although, he said some of the jobs they worked in prison are dying industries on the outside.
“They are not seeing the changes in the job market,” he said.
“Where it becomes complicated is where you have a small industry and you have the criminal history barrier,” he said. “It really kind of shoots the person in the foot.”
He noted that in his experience, inmates serving long-term sentences are more likely to have accessed beneficial technical training and work during incarceration than inmates serving shorter sentences.
For some inmates, getting that first job can be difficult, taking up to six months in some cases, which can mess with a former inmate’s self-esteem, Ciccotelli said.
But there are employers willing to give convicts a second shot.
Todd Londin, owner of ABC Window Cleaners and Building Maintenance LLC, said he hires local workers with employment barriers, including former prison inmates with nonviolent convictions. He encourages them to find better-paying work once they have a few years of experience, he said.
He said for his company, some of the janitorial skills taught in prisons, such as floor care, stripping and waxing, are beneficial, but he can teach the necessary skills to anyone who is willing to work.
“I have found that the majority of people that I give a second chance to work harder and last longer than people that come in off the street,” Londin said. “They prove they want to be back in society, not be a drain on society.”
Under new management
Ken Jeske took the reins of Oregon Corrections Enterprises in 2014 after its previous director, Rob Killgore, was fired amid financial woes and conflicts with the Department of Corrections.
Jeske has worked in corrections for more than two decades. He began as a corrections officer and most recently oversaw Oregon Youth Authority.
He said when he took the job with OCE, “it was kind of in a crisis mode.”
In the two years he’s been at the helm of the agency, he’s boosted revenue by 24 percent and moved it into the 21st century with the addition of e-commerce and electronic marketing, and he hired a new business development manager.
In 2015, OCE businesses brought in $25.6 million in revenue, a revenue record for the second year in a row.
But the agency isn’t rolling in dough. Many of the manufacturing programs are supported by profits from the call centers and laundries, but Jeske said he wants to keep them operating because they help inmates gain useful skills.
“We keep getting hit with PERS (Public Employees Retirement System) and other things that keep raising our costs,” he said, but today his agency has more inmates working in its programs than ever before while it manages to operate in the black.
Street Roots was denied access to Oregon Corrections Enterprises’ most recent annual audit but was told it found “zero significant deficiencies.”
In 2013, Portland State University completed a three-phase strategic assessment of Oregon Corrections Enterprises and made 13 recommendations its authors believed would allow the agency to expand its programs and double or triple its capacity by 2022.
The report pointed out that with an inmate workforce of 1,200 at the time of the analysis, only 10 percent of the work-eligible inmate population was assigned to Oregon Corrections Enterprises programs, and many were lower-risk inmates which led to lower turnover.
Part of this has to do with eligibility requirements. To work for Oregon Corrections Enterprises, an inmate must have six months’ clear conduct, and for some jobs, such as in the contact center, a GED is required.
The PSU report recommended Oregon Corrections Enterprises engage with more high-risk inmates, optimize its businesses and marketing, and expand its programs.
Jeske has outlined a strategic plan with many of these recommendations at the forefront, along with input from his staff, something he said wasn’t happening before he took over.
“For the first time in a long time, they needed to feel like they were a valuable part of the organization and the administration cared about them,” he said.
When asked if he thought doubling or tripling capacity in the next six years is attainable, he said, “I would like to tell you, yes, it’s attainable, but we struggle with displacement in the community.
“At the end of the day, you still have to have a product or a service that is in need by the community.”
But slowly, he’s adding jobs. He’s optimistic about a new transcription service at the state’s only women’s prison and a new website updating program that will bring state websites into American Disability Act compliance. This will add about 35 to 50 jobs.
Additionally, inmates will soon be building homeless shelters. Oregon Corrections Enterprises came up with a design that Jeske said “doesn’t look like a tool shed; it has some character to it.”
He’s worked with mobile home manufacturers in Oregon to ensure skills inmates learn while building the shelters will qualify them to work at a home manufacturing plant.
He plans to survey inmates for input on new opportunities, and he’s working on a program to build electric guitars under the Prison Blues label, the same label used for the prison’s line of jeans.
When Street Roots spoke with Jeske, he’d just learned the Department of Corrections approved a contest where inmates could submit designs for the instrument they would mass-produce.
“To me, if it comes from the inmates, that’s even better because the ownership of that,” he said. “I’ve heard millions of stories – a lot of them don’t have much to be proud of because they harmed their families or other people. So when they start having something that they are proud of, that they can show their families, it really makes an impact.”
While Oregon Corrections Enterprises is growing, most working inmates are assigned to Department of Corrections jobs in work programs overseen by Angelozzi.
“Whether it’s a janitor job or a kitchen job or a maintenance crew job, it gives the inmates skills that they need,” she said.
Room for improvement
While many of Oregon’s inmates work full time in prison, they typically have little savings to show for it when they’re released.
If they do have some cash, it’s usually not much, said Paul Solomon. He’s the executive director of Sponsors, a re-entry program with a network of services engaging roughly 500 former jail and prison inmates in Lane County annually.
“When you’re starting out with nothing, two or three hundred dollars doesn’t go very far,” he said.
“The fact that almost half of the people being released from custody don’t have identified housing when they are released is a bit of a travesty in my mind,” Solomon said, “and where you’re released, in many cases, dictates what type of resources you’ll have.”
He said in some counties, especially outside the I-5 corridor, some inmates are released to homelessness.
“It’s tough to start when you’re on the streets,” he said.
But even if the Department of Corrections wanted to pay inmates the minimum wage – as prisons in Poland do – it couldn’t afford it.
Oregon’s prisons couldn’t operate without their underpaid inmate workers.
Without them, “we would have to hire more people,” Corrections Department spokesperson Betty Bernt said. “We don’t have the resources to do that. That’s just not realistic.”
But if inmates want luxury items, such as toothpaste, they will likely have to work for them. But if they get into trouble, not only are they likely to lose their job, but they also may be fined for misbehaving, which can also eat into their savings.
In 2016, inmates at Oregon state prisons paid $316,810 in fines they accrued while behind bars. Of that, $88,960 was for property damage or medical expenses related to an assault, and $227,850 was for disciplinary fines.
When prisoners are released with little or no savings, it places an additional burden on taxpayers.
“We’re paying for it one way or another,” Solomon said.
He and re-entry counselor Ciccotelli both agreed that most inmates will need some form of support once they are released.
“According to DOC, about three-quarters of the people in custody have moderate to severe substance abuse issues, yet only a fraction of them receive treatment,” Solomon said. “Sex offender treatment is another one. Oregon is a state that doesn’t provide sex offender treatment,” he said, this, despite Oregon having a high rate of sex offenders.
He also expressed concern about the under-capacity status of the automotive training program at Oregon State Penitentiary.
“There is no reason those programs shouldn’t be full, and if they aren’t, they should be plucking people from other institutions and bringing them there for the better programs,” he said.
He plans to bring this up at the next meeting of the Governor’s Reentry Council, on which he sits.
Since it was established in 2007, this council has introduced some productive policy changes to help inmates succeed after their release, he said, such as ensuring they have identification.
There have also been improvements in Oregon’s five largest counties, he said. In Oregon, parole and re-entry are handled on the county level, and it’s common practice for parole officers, treatment providers and other service providers to connect with inmates before release to make the transition back into society smoother.
But many rural counties don’t have the resources to do this.
“We need to create more equity across the state for services to make sure every person that comes out of prison has transitional housing, has employment services, has treatment, the things that we know make a difference in a person’s success,” Solomon said.
In the 2017 legislative session, a bill creating a Certificate of Good Standing for inmates will be introduced.
“It’s not something someone would get immediately upon release; it would be something that would take time,” said Sen. Michael Dembrow (D-Portland).
An inmate would begin to earn the certificate before release and then would obtain it if he or she continued to meet the conditions of parole for a period of time after re-entry. The intention is that having this certificate of rehabilitation would carry weight in the eyes of prospective employers, Dembrow said.
“Is there more work to do? Sure. And clearly there’s a lot we could be doing to ensure people success when they get out,” Solomon said. “Hell, when you take a look at the recidivism rates with master’s degrees, there’s a great solution! Give everybody an education. But fiscally, it’s a little more challenging.”
Email staff reporter Emily Green at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GreenWrites.
INSIDE OREGON'S PRISON WORKFORCE, PART II: Education and training programs