With less than 120 days left in her gun charge sentence, Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women inmate Tanya Jordan whiles away the time hemming sheets in the prison’s garment factory.
“I didn’t even know how to thread a needle. Now I’m doing three threads in one needle,” Jordan, 41, said of the skills she learned.
At LCIW and the nearby Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, inmates stitch together prison jumpsuits and linens, pick pecans and tend to cattle.
At state prisons across the state, inmates grow crops and make license plates, construct bunk beds, sell snacks and create mattresses.
With money scarce in state government, Gov. Bobby Jindal recently closed state prisons in DeQuincy, Keithville and Pineville. He said the facilities cost too much to operate.
Prison Enterprises, which runs the garment factory and other operations, was a moneymaker for the state in the fiscal year that ended June 30. The program had a net profit of $422,000 after two years of net losses totaling $336,481.
However, any profit generated is not used to defray prison expenses.
Michael J. Moore, director of Prison Enterprises for the Louisiana Department of Corrections, said all revenue flows back into the program to repair equipment, pay salaries, cover the utilities for the training operations and give inmates incentive wages.
“It all goes back into the program,” he said.
A report published earlier this year for the Louisiana Legislative Fiscal Office focused on 15 states that maintain prison industry programs.
Kentucky inmates make soap. Prisoners in North Carolina process meat. In Texas, unpaid inmates fashion garments.
The prison industry programs, employing 23,994 inmates, reported $801.8 million in revenue during the 2010-11 fiscal year.
Not all states deposit their entire profits back into their programs.
North Carolina Correction Enterprises published an annual report showing the program ended the 2010-2011 fiscal year with $90.9 million in total sales, including highway signage, janitorial supplies and optical.
The program’s director, Karen A. Brown, reported transferring $8.5 million into a crime victims compensation fund, the state’s general fund, the corrections department’s general fund and inmate wages.
“Contributing to the mission of Correction Enterprises makes a difference, not only to the lives of offenders, but to the state of North Carolina,” Brown wrote.
Texas Correctional Industries produces engraved mugs, lockers, ornamental fencing, Texas flags and awards, among other products.
Jason Clark, spokesman for the program, said TCI generates $70 million in products a year. Offenders, he said, are not paid for their work.
“The benefits of TCI are twofold,” he said. “From a fiscal perspective, TCI benefits the state of Texas by generating cost savings. ... From the rehabilitative perspective, TCI places offenders in realistic work environments and enables them to obtain marketable job skills.”
In Tennessee, independent state agency TRICOR manages the prison enterprises program.
TRICOR reported saving taxpayers $3.7 million in supervision and programming costs in the last fiscal year and transferring $926,000 into a criminal injuries compensation fund for victims.
Pam LaBorde, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Corrections, said the state’s Prison Enterprises tries to maintain sufficient working capital to replace equipment, make repairs and amass inventory.
The program’s largest gross sales in the 2011-12 fiscal year were:
- Canteen sales, $9.9 million.
- Garment sales, $2.3 million.
- License plates, $1.5 million.
- Cleaning supplies, $1.1 million.
- Mattresses, brooms and mops, $640,471.
The goods are sold to state agencies, parish and local governments, and nonprofit organizations.
At LCIW, Lenette Robertson supervises 70 inmates in the garment factory. A cavernous room is divided into two lines with sheets being sewed on one side and jumpsuits on the other.
“I start them out easy because most of them aren’t familiar with sewing,” she said.
Beginners stitch together the shoulders of T-shirts because the task only requires sewing a straight line.
Robertson said inmates receive between 2 cents to 20 cents an hour.
“We try to get people who want to work and do something with their time,” she said.
Inmate Esther Penns, 60, works in the garment factory while serving a life sentence for murder.
She smiles as she recalls the time an order came in for a 7X-size T-shirt for an inmate at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
With seven years of work history, Penns is a garment factory veteran.
“It’s a skill,” she said.
Jordan plans to take the skills she learned to New Jersey, where she wants to move after she is released.
“I was excited about working in here because I’m gaining occupational skills,” Jordan said. “I would like to work in a factory.”