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Prison Inmate Manufacturing

Job skills offer inmates new opportunities


December 20, 2001
Copyright © 2001 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Manufacturing by penal population is competitive; inmate training is sound public policy

Imagine that workers earning $1.00 an hour at an apparel company in Puerto Rico can underbid the price from manufacturers in such low wage/labor-intensive countries as the Dominican Republic and those in the Far East—and it is legal.

These employees work for the Corporation for Training and Job Businesses (CEAT by its Spanish acronym), a non-profit organization attached to the Puerto Rico Department of Corrections. The corporation provides job training experiences and skills to prison inmates in Puerto Rico’s penal system.

By law, prison inmates can earn a maximum of $7 a day (higher than 38 states in the mainland) or are credited with days off their sentences for performing certain duties within the penal system. While people outside the island’s prisons prefer jobs that pay above minimum wage (now $5.15 an hour), CEAT provides inmates ways to combat idleness, learn a trade, and perhaps send their family some extra income.

"Most inmates are convicted for three to five years on drug trafficking, breaking and entering, petty theft, and other similar offenses. If they are not given a job skill or motivation to change their ways before returning to the community, most prisoners will relapse and end up back in jail," said Juan L. Quintero, executive director of CEAT.

"Puerto Rico must do more to actively encourage prison inmates’ rehabilitation. And this is a trend being adopted not only by U.S. mainland states but also foreign countries such as Chile and Spain. True rehabilitation programs that provide job training are becoming a matter of sound public policy," said Quintero.

It is difficult to determine how much the government of Puerto Rico spends buying goods and services from private vendors, but according to figures extrapolated by House of Representatives Vice President Ferdinand Perez, estimates range close to $7 billion annually.

This means that if even 10% of that amount, or $7 million, was invested in Puerto Rico’s local business sector, CEAT would have a fair chance of marketing and selling its products, particularly to government agencies. Puerto Rico’s legislators are preparing and have already submitted bills that would encourage government agencies and private sector companies to purchase local goods in exchange for tax incentives. (See sidebar.)

Up to 300 inmates daily can participate in CEAT’s programs. But Quintero wants to expand that number exponentially as the company wins contracts from not only government agencies, but the private industry as well.

"Our upholstery and woodworking programs compete with some of the best carpenters and industry professionals in Puerto Rico. Our office furniture is excellent, in part due to quality controls set in place. Other CEAT programs, such as sewing, soldering, and the printing shop, are equally first-rate, competing with businesses operating outside the penal system," said Quintero.

CEAT currently operates training and job programs in the Rio Piedras, Cayey, and Vega Alta penal facilities. CARIBBEAN BUSINESS’ tour of CEAT’s operations at the Rio Piedras Penitentiary showed that the organization does not lack for state of the art machinery, materials, and inmate talent.

Rio Piedras’ woodworking and upholstery programs share an 18,000 square foot combined workshop and warehouse facility where 105 inmates at a time can work. The program’s participants can manufacture a variety of office products, including but not limited to executive and secretarial desks and upholstered chairs, reception area furniture, conference tables, computer furniture, file cabinets, conference tables and chairs, and credenzas.

In a separate area of the Rio Piedras prison grounds, 25 inmates produce school desks in different sizes, plus gavels, and flagpoles. The soldering program’s 20 participants can manufacture bed frames (mattresses are also made by the inmates) and the sewing program’s 30 members, both men and women, can manufacture practically any apparel piece, including aprons, uniforms, t-shirts, and pillows.

One of the longest running programs may be the prison’s printing shop. There is space for 30 inmates in the program, and their machinery can produce stationery, presentation cards, posters, invitations, envelopes and other documents in up to four colors. Rio Piedras’ 10 mechanical program members are also responsible for the maintenance and repair of vehicles belonging to CEAT and the prison.

CEAT operates two other programs outside Rio Piedras. The organization runs a woodworking program for up to 60 inmates in Cayey’s Camp Guavate Correctional System (a prison facility for small and medium sized custody inmates). Highly skilled cabinetmakers fill special orders for some of the finest locally made desks, conference tables, podiums, gavels, and file cabinets. At the Vega Alta Women’s Prison, CEAT runs a sewing program for 20 members.

CEAT faces several problems running its programs, primarily the misinformation about the programs’ existence and the quality of the products manufactured. While CEAT actually offers 300 slots for inmate training and production, security issues at the Rio Piedras penitentiary provoke frequent absences among program participants.

With more operational funds, CEAT could hire its own security and not depend on penal guards to accompany inmates from their cells to the programs. When penal guards are absent or there aren’t enough available, inmates are not allowed to come to the programs.

CEAT’s 37 employees are very dedicated to the organization. Five employees are ex-inmates who teach their trade to program participants. The program’s budget for fiscal year 2001 was $4.1 million to cover salaries and benefits, materials, equipment, machinery, and any repairs that can’t be made internally.

CEAT also wants to add more programs. Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Edward Byrne Memorial program notified CEAT that it was a finalist for a $1.1 million grant. The funds will be used to provide a Technology Services Repair and Training program where participants can learn computer skills and repair techniques.

Another project pending approval is automobile license plate manufacturing. The government, which currently purchases Puerto Rico’s license plates from the Louisiana Corrections Department, could buy them 22% cheaper from CEAT with a minimum investment in machinery, according to Quintero.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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