The economic downturn is even having an impact on the state prison industries program where some 400 inmates work making everything from blue jeans to furniture. But administrators of the program have found an surprising way to create new work in one prison.
Buyers spent a record $20.8 million with prison industries last year, but program director, Roger Baysden, says furniture orders are down by half. Baysden says prison industries operates pretty much like a main street business, so when money is cut to schools, furniture orders go down.
Around 50 to 100 prisoners have been laid off in the current program — but a new operation at the prison is Rockwell City is hiring workers as they start to build metal jail cells.
"Over time you can pick through a concrete wall, as we seen on some of the old escape movies, but it’s virtually impossible to pick through a gauge steel wall," Baysden explains. The standard eight-by-ten steel cells that are then stacked together and surrounded by steel to build the prison.
The steel cells will cost about $15,000 each, and up to 30 prisoners will be trained to weld, assemble and paint the cells. Inmate Brian Davis of Sioux City is serving time for second-degree murder and is learning to welding to add to his training as a woodworker.
Davis says they are working on becoming certified welders and he says it will be beneficial. Baysden says welding is a skill the prisoners can use to get a job once they serve their time.
"We don’t turn out bankers, we aren’t turning out insurance sales people," Baysden says, "we are turning out people who will get their jumpstart back into the community by the sweat of their brow, and welding is a wonderful skill to transition back to the community. Inmates that work in prison industries do not come back to prison." Union welders can make as much as $25 an hour. Inmate Davis does admit that building jail cells within a prison is a little strange.
He laughs and says they do catch a little flack from other prisoners, "but I always tell ’em, everyone has got to be somewhere." The first order of 50 jail cells will be shipped off from Rockwell City to Oklahoma by the end of the summer.