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Missouri Vocational Enterprises offers job opportunities for inmates

Prison factories intend to rehabilitate inmates, but private businesses cite unfair competition
Thursday, June 25, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 11:24 a.m. CDT, Thursday, June 25, 2009
Gary Reynolds is a leather-and woodworker in MVE's engraving department. Reynolds was incarcerated in 1979 and won't be eligible for release until 2028. It is the creative part of his job that he relishes. He hand-carves wooden state seals and designs leather purses, billfolds and ID holders for state employees and not-for-profits. In his free time, Reynolds teaches art classes and enjoys drawing antiques.

JEFFERSON CITY — It's almost 8:30 a.m. at the Jefferson City Correctional Center. For Robert Bush, the workday began two hours ago.

Bush is one of roughly 350 offenders at the maximum-security prison who take part in an inmate labor program called Missouri Vocational Enterprises, or MVE. He operates a printing press in MVE’s graphic arts department and oversees a small staff that — among many other duties —produces hunting licenses for the Missouri Department of Conservation and vehicle registration stickers and fuel-tax decals for the Missouri Department of Revenue.

MVE at a glance

Missouri Vocational Enterprises, or MVE, is a prison work program that produces roughly 1,200 products, ranging from license plates to wooden bookshelves. By Missouri law, MVE goods and services can only be purchased by:
   • State agencies
   • Public schools and
   • Not-for-profit organizations.
The program employs roughly 1,600 offenders in 15 prisons in the state.


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Bush is also a convicted murderer. At 53, he’s in the 21st year of a life sentence for strangling a 17-year-old girl in Nevada, Mo., in 1986.

With wide, steel blue eyes that pierce through his prison-issued glasses, Bush says he killed the girl “without care” during a time when he was heavily abusing drugs and alcohol.

“Now I’m paying my dues,” Bush says in a steady, nasal tone.

His hands — interlaced under a tobacco-stained mustache — signal a contemplative pose.

“I’m paying for that crime I committed.”

***

The graphic arts department where Bush works is one of seven MVE factories that lie behind the prison walls in Jefferson City. Past the 12-foot-high “kill fence” wound with razor wire and down a long outdoor corridor that’s lined with empty basketball courts and an occasional cluster of inmates smoking cigarettes, the MVE factories look no different from the other off-white concrete buildings scattered throughout the prison complex.

But inside, there is a flurry of activity.

Inmates sand large wooden desks and drill notches into planks for bookshelves in MVE’s furniture factory. The place smells like a junior high shop class.

Nearly all Missouri’s license plates are manufactured in another factory, where offenders trim reams of aluminum and verify individual tag numbers amid the rhythmic hum of large embossing machines. In the clothing shop, gray-uniformed inmates stitch outfits for state prison guards and fluorescent safety vests for Missouri's Department of Transportation crews.

Missouri Vocational Enterprises produces more than 1,200 products in 15 prisons across the state. More than 1,600 offenders participate in the program, which did $38.9 million in gross sales with various tax-supported entities last year. It’s intended to rehabilitate prisoners by teaching them valuable skills that can be used upon release. It provides steady work for prisoners, even at a time when the state unemployment rate soars. But some Missouri business owners view MVE as unfair intrusion into the open market.

***

For Bush, rehabilitation is a tangible thing. He said that he feels rehabilitated and has MVE to thank – at least in some way.

“My job … that’s as normal as I can be,” Bush said. “I get up in the morning, go to work, and I get paid for what I do.”

Seated next to him is Gary Reynolds, a 63-year-old leather- and woodworker in MVE’s engraving department. Reynolds — also a convicted killer — said his circumstances make the concept of rehabilitation different for him. Whereas Bush will be up for parole again in November 2010, Reynolds won’t be eligible for release until 2028. He’ll be 83 by then.

“I’m sure the key motivation is the financial help,” Bush said of MVE. The program pays offenders up to 71 cents per hour. But he also goes on to explain how MVE might one day punch his ticket to freedom and lead to a job on the outside.

While Bush details how MVE might prepare him for life after prison, Reynolds leans back in his chair, legs extended, staring at his black rubber shoes.

For Reynolds, “it’s the creative part” of the job that’s important.

In the engraving department, he designs leather purses, billfolds and ID holders for state employees and people who work for not-for-profit groups. When an order for a wooden state seal comes in – perhaps from a city, perhaps from a Missouri legislator – it’s Reynolds who will spend the next 16 days carving it by hand.

For a man who used to paint cars and motorcycles before being convicted of murdering his wife in 1979, MVE offers a job and a hobby for Reynolds, something that he said helps him retain a small part of the person he was outside the prison walls.

Meanwhile, the minimal wages come in handy. Bush at one point saved his earnings until he could buy a typewriter that allowed him to correspond with the outside world. Reynolds, on the other hand, typically spends the 50 cents per hour he makes on snacks at the prison canteen.

“I don’t try to be too close with people on the streets because it’s counterproductive really,” Reynolds said. “ … I understand (Bush’s) situation, but it doesn’t pay to get too close for me.”

Although each offender has his own reasons for being involved in MVE, neither wants to lose the opportunity.

“My factory job down there, it means a lot to me. It does,” Bush said. “And, uh, make no bones about it, it’s important to earn a living and take care of myself.”

***

For MVE officials, rehabilitation is the linchpin of the entire program.

“Our offenders are our finished product,” said Ron Wiles, who manages the graphic arts department where Bush works.

At the very least, several others say, the program teaches participants to get up and go to work four times a week, 10 hours a day.

“There’s something very valuable, very therapeutic, about going to work on a daily basis and being productive,” MVE administrator John Scott said.

Behind his offender-manufactured desk at the MVE central office in Jefferson City, Scott, a stout, square-shaped man with strong arms and a deep, deliberate voice, reasons that most offenders will re-enter society one day.

“It’s in that community’s best interest to have an individual coming back … that can be gainfully employed, that does have some employment skills and quite possibly could be a lot less dependent on public programs than would otherwise be,” he said.

According to figures from the Missouri Department of Corrections, the roughly 3,000 offenders who were employed by MVE and released from prison over a recent three-year span were 10 percent less likely than non-participants to return to prison for parole violations or new convictions.

Research also indicates this trend and establishes a strong link between a person’s ability to find a job and inmate recidivism rates. According to a 2004 report by the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute, participants in prison industries are twice as likely to find a job upon release than those who are not.

The report also notes prison programs’ positive influence on inmates who are able to contribute financially to their families and children.

Programs such as MVE are said to lead to “reductions in misconduct, violence, and disturbances” while offenders are in prison, too. So MVE can be a boost even for someone such as Reynolds, who might never leave the Jefferson City prison.

Reynolds said it simply gives offenders something to do and helps them stay out of trouble. “You need that within the walls, or you’ll have chaos,” he said.

***

Dan Eiken doesn’t deny the positive, rehabilitative aspects of MVE. But he argues that a state policy that gives MVE products special consideration damages his ability to earn a profit.

Eiken owns Samco Business Products, a Jefferson City office furniture retailer.

“Our company, as an independent business, cannot sell any office furniture to the state of Missouri without a waiver from the MVE administration,” Eiken explained, adding that, in a community such as Jefferson City, where government offices abound, “all of that business in this market is not available to us.”

Eiken is referring to a Missouri law that, among other stipulations, states “no goods or services … manufactured, provided or produced shall be purchased from any other source (than MVE) for the state or public institutions.”

In other words, if a product or service is available to a state agency through MVE, it must be purchased through the prison program under certain circumstances.

Eiken said that provision hurts Samco’s bottom line and limits his ability to hire more workers. Whereas MVE used to mainly build wooden desks and a limited number of accessories, its furniture factory today assembles entire panel systems, workstations, office chairs and basically “any piece of office furniture.”

Eiken said he thinks he should be able to bid for the state’s business if he’s able to compete with MVE prices, which typically are low because of cheap inmate labor.

“What I’m saying is allow me to compete, and allow the state agencies to do what’s best for their budget,” Eiken said.

Missouri’s unemployment rate — at 9 percent in the most recent estimate by the Missouri Department of Economic Development — is at a 25-year high. Eiken thinks the state should consider that.

 “At a time when we need to grow our tax base and employ more in the private sector,” he said, “I would think it’s in the best interest of the growth of our economy that we prioritize our efforts to those of us that look at employing non-incarcerated labor.”

In March 2006, Eiken joined several other Jefferson City business owners in testifying in favor of a bill that would have revised state statutes to create an open bidding process for all state expenditures, including products manufactured by MVE. But the bill died in committee.

Eiken said the proposed legislation would not have guaranteed him any more business. But “at least we could have a greater opportunity to grow our business.”

Other Jefferson City business owners, including Bill Sappenfield of Colonial Printing, also criticize MVE for the limits it puts on private business.

“To me, it’s unfair competition because I have to pay my people a living wage (and) health insurance,” Sappenfield said. “… there’s no way, if they (MVE) go out on the open market that I can compete with them.”

While he acknowledges that his company lacks the specialized equipment needed to produce state permits and license tabs, he does compete directly with MVE in the printing of brochures, letterheads, pamphlets, business cards, envelopes and other paper products.

“Rehabilitation is fine,” Sappenfield said. “But they’re taking away money from private enterprise to rehabilitate.Where do the ends justify the means?”

***

Scott, head of MVE, dismisses the arguments of Sappenfield and Eiken.

“I don’t believe we have an unfair advantage over anybody,” he said.

He noted that MVE has a limited number of customers. State statutes make it clear that prison-manufactured goods can be sold only to state agencies, public schools or not-for-profits.

And the provision requiring that state agencies buy from MVE when possible doesn’t apply to school districts or other groups.

Scott showed that 69 percent of MVE’s total sales in 2008 were to state agencies; the remainder came from schools and not-for-profits that are not obligated to buy from MVE.

In these cases where MVE is not favored under the law — such as competitive bidding for dormitory furniture — Scott said MVE products have often been selected because of their lower cost, better quality or better continuing service.

In other cases, he explained, it’s difficult to compete with larger companies that might mass-produce a certain product.

In the grand scheme of things, Scott added, MVE is a fairly small-scale operation; it’s unable to specialize its focus like larger companies.

While Eiken argues that a more competitive state bidding process would only make MVE more efficient, Scott counters that inefficiency is not the issue.

In some cases, he said, the professional quality of MVE products can be viewed as a disadvantage if products are to be judged by a strictly low-cost metric.

 “We don’t make particle board furniture, but in some cases, that’s what we’re compared to,” Scott said. He maintains that MVE should be viewed in the context of the positive, rehabilitative aspects it brings to offenders and to those who may encounter offenders upon release.

“The intention is certainly not to be in competition with private business,” he said. “It’s everybody’s responsibility as taxpayers … to manage the situation in regard to offenders returning to society … That also includes other businesses that touch some of the areas we do business in.”

Ultimately, the question comes down to what the cost of rehabilitation really is.

***

That question is not lost on Bush or Reynolds.

Reynolds said that without MVE, he still would be able to manage. He could keep himself occupied by drawing, for instance. But “there would be a lot of free time that we don’t want inside the cell.”

For Bush, it would be a lot tougher.

“I enjoy having those little extras I can purchase,” he said.

Without MVE, Bush would be unable to buy new sneakers or to smoke the cigarettes he rolls. He wouldn’t have the typewriter he uses to keep in touch with his “lady friend” in Kansas City, Kan., and his 30-year-old daughter — who is married and lives in Washington state.

Without MVE, Bush never would have made contact with the man from Massachusetts who came to the Jefferson City Correctional Center to install a new printing press in the graphic arts department. Bush said the guy has offered to write a letter of recommendation for him if he is ever freed.

It’s Bush’s ties to the outside world that keep him thinking about life after prison.

Bush remembers when he worked for MVE at the old Missouri State Penitentiary, which closed in 2004. He’d stare out the window and see the Missouri River, cars on the highway, airplanes taking off and landing and the railroad tracks that ran beside the prison.

“I can tell you how many cars there are in a coal train,” he said.

Although the prospect of freedom excites him, he also fears “integration into life again.”

He said there are obvious temptations on the outside, temptations that he “never did well with before.”

But more so, Bush said, “The situation I’m in now — I’ve got a pretty good job, I’ve got men that work for me and respect me. I’m comfortable inside the institution here."

“I’m used to this environment … Take me outside of this, and then I’m just a lowly public citizen again, trying to find a job.”

Asked what he misses most about the outside world, Reynolds said it’s a big list. Mostly, though, it’s “just the freedom.”

Bush struggles with the same question. He takes off his glasses and blots his reddened eyes with a folded white handkerchief.

“Yeah, that’s hard,” he said before choking out the words. “My family.”

“It’s a hard thing … I walked out on them a long time ago, and trying to regain that trust, it’s next to impossible, you know? How can you build that back up?”


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