Kan. corrections officials tout program putting inmates in jobs; others say it merits scrutiny

Inmates say they're are grateful for the opportunity to learn new skills, no matter the pay or difficulty of the labor

By Andrew Bahl
The Topeka Capital-Journal, Kan.
TOPEKA, Kan. — When a select group of inmates were summoned to the gymnasium at Topeka Correctional Facility earlier this year, they had no idea what the impromptu meeting was about.

Far from being in trouble, the group learned they were eligible for a new work release program after a deal was struck with Russell Stover to allow inmates to work in their plants in Iola and Abilene.

"So one day, we were just here ... and the next we were getting ready to go to work," said Lisa Pereira, one of the inmates participating in the program.

Select inmates at Topeka Correctional Facility began a new work release program earlier this year after a deal was struck with the candy maker Russell Stover.
Select inmates at Topeka Correctional Facility began a new work release program earlier this year after a deal was struck with the candy maker Russell Stover. (Joseph Hernandez/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Days later, they were on a bus back from their first day of work, reeking of chocolate and grappling with a new opportunity many didn't think they would receive while incarcerated.

The Kansas Department of Corrections has portrayed the program as a win-win for the 150 inmates involved, as well as Russell Stover. Starting in April, it is one of the first programs of its kind at Topeka Correctional Facility, the state's women's prison, and comes as the agency moves to boost workforce development offerings in its facilities.

But it comes amid a national debate, with the ethics of such arrangements coming under scrutiny at a time when many are pushing for a reconceptualization of incarceration, both in Kansas and across the country.

While the agency argues inmates are paid a similar wage to civilian employees, money can still be siphoned off for everything from transportation costs to court fees. And the prison has had to restructure many aspects of daily life, with inmates saying sleep is sometimes hard to come by amid a grueling schedule.

Still, Jan Vicory, another inmate at TCF participating in the program, says the opportunity has been a unique one, an opportunity to regain social and job skills that have lain dormant after years behind bars.

"It's not just a job when you have been stripped of everything you knew to be right or wrong," she said. "And then you're built back up as a functioning American citizen."

But some argue the program, and others like it, covers up more glaring flaws in how the state supports individuals released from prison in obtaining employment, housing and other basic services.

"We should be preparing people for re-entry, we should be giving them job skills and job training," said Sharon Brett, legal director for the ACLU of Kansas. "But that really hides the reality of how exploitive some of these work release programs can be, where people are put into jobs that are hard labor, for little pay on undesirable shifts, without the protection of U.S. labor laws, for the most part."

For Vicory and Pereira, their day begins in early afternoon, preparing their lunch and getting on a bus for the nearly two-hour ride to Iola. Both work the evening shift, meaning they clock in between 3:30 and 4 p.m. and get off between midnight and 12:30 a.m. That means a return to TCF about 2:30 a.m.

The pair agree they are treated well by their supervisors and fellow employees and say there is no stigma associated with coming from the prison.

Vicory said she gets a level of joy from her position, which involves running a machine — one of the last of its kind still in operation — to make the marshmallow filling found in the company's ubiquitous candies.

"It's an amazing job and, and the factory work is ball busting, back breaking — but it feels good every single day," she said.

The participants involved were selected using the normal eligibility procedures for work release jobs, TCF Warden Gloria Geither said. Certain crimes and disciplinary infractions can rule out participation, as can certain medical conditions.

While similar work release arrangements have existed at several correctional facilities across the state, officials note the Russell Stover arrangement is unique in several respects.

Chief among them is the distance involved — Abilene is 94 miles from TCF, while Iola is 102 miles away. This has created a series of logistical hurdles, Geither said.

Staffing schedules have had to shift around to accommodate the graveyard hours and other programming, such as medical appointments, have had to be reworked as well.

Then there are practical considerations: how to get inmates meals and clothing that are well-suited to a long shift of working on their feet. How best to launder garments that smell of chocolate. And how to help ensure that participants are ready to go to a job many never envisioned they would ever have.

"It's kind of like all the things that you have to teach your child before they go to school," Geither said. "You're teaching these ladies to make sure you're clean, make sure your hair is done, make sure you're showered, make sure your teeth are brushed, here's how you have professional boundaries at work, because these are things they've never done before.

"I mean, this was not their career path."

Randall Bowman, director of public affairs at KDOC, said pay is determined after a Kansas Department of Labor study, where a typical pay range is established for the type of position inmates are taking, although he acknowledged the wages may be slightly less than what many civilians would make starting out at Russell Stover.

The website glassdoor.com, which tracks pay scales based off employee-reported data, listed the wage for a machine operator at Russell Stover's Iola plant as $17-$18 per hour.

The $14-per-hour wages inmates make are still a major step up from what other prison workers can expect to earn. Inmates making everything from furniture to paint in the Kansas Correctional Industries can make well under $1 per hour, depending on the program.

Inmates can have their wages garnished, however, to go toward child support or court docket fees, if applicable.

Meanwhile, 25% of an inmate's pay is withheld for "room and board" expenses, while an additional 5% is subtracted for victim's compensation, either as part of a court-mandated restitution plan or to the Victim Assistance Fund more broadly. And 10% is socked away in a savings account, which can only be accessed by an inmate after they leave prison.

Inmates pay a flat rate of $10 per workday to Russell Stover, allowing the company to rent a coach bus to transport them to Iola and Abilene. While inmates usually pay transportation costs, it is typically at a mileage rate set by the state, which would come out to several times the $10 per day fee.

Brandilyn Parks, president of the Kansas Coalition for Sentence and Prison Reform, notes inmates don't receive additional services, despite paying room and board. And because state taxes are taken out of their wages, she argues they are in effect paying for their own imprisonment multiple times over.

A more equitable approach, she said, would be to remove the room-and-board component, offer inmates benefits similar to what civilian workers could receive and include them in federal labor laws, something courts have ruled prison workers are generally exempt from.

"They're treated different than you or I would be," she said. "They're not given the same respect."

For their part, Vicory and Pereira said they don't believe the program to be exploitative. Pereira said she understood that letting companies pay inmates slightly less than civilian workers is a needed incentive to entice companies to participate.

"Why wouldn't it be fair and just?" Vicory said. "When you're incarcerated, you're probably incarcerated for messing up. Well, if you're being trained to do what's right, how can that not be fair? How can that not be just? Isn't that the grand scheme of rehabilitation?"

Skeptics and proponents of work release programs note there are other benefits.

Often, participation in these arrangements is considered to be a boon when inmates are being considered for parole, said ACLU of Kansas's Brett, pushing many inmates to dive headfirst into the programs, even if the hours and lower pay don't thrill them.

"People are doing it to get the skills, but I think people are also doing it because they feel obligated to, they feel like they need to have something to show for themselves," she said. "And there's so few opportunities available to them while they're incarcerated.

"They feel like they need to have this record of them doing good in order to be granted parole."

Parks said multiple inmates at TCF informed her that, due to a water shortage, inmates recently were prevented from showering for a day — except for participants in the Russell Stover program.

And inmates will be able to retain their jobs at Russell Stover once they leave prison. If they elected to go elsewhere, they could also have their manager at the facility serve as a job reference, but Vicory and Pereira said they plan on maintaining their positions upon release.

And when that happens, Pereira said the job will have been vital in building the soft skills that she lost after almost five years in prison.

"I am relearning how to interact on a normal basis with people in a job, which is super huge for me," she said.

The program comes at a time when many businesses, such as Russell Stover, are having a difficult time finding and hiring qualified workers.

"At the end of the day, it was Russell Stover needing good quality employees to work in their two plants," said Bowman, of KDOC.

Parks said the skills gained are a big reason why the jobs are highly sought after by inmates — leading her to classify them as a "double-edged sword."

Brett agreed.

"I'm not categorically against job training programs and work release programs, if they're done correctly," she said. "But I think it's telling that these types of opportunities are the only places where people feel like they're getting those skills, where they're getting the soft job skills.

"It's telling that there are no other opportunities for people while they're incarcerated to pick up those skills."

But skeptics note that the programs, while helpful, merely paper over more structural problems encountered by formerly incarcerated individuals when they are released.

KDOC has tried to make the workforce development push pervasive across its facilities. Bowman noted there are 42 public-private partnerships, including the Russell Stover program.

Earlier this month, the agency unveiled a new job training center at Lansing Correctional Facility amid a belief that the job training push will help keep formerly incarcerated individuals from returning to prison.

"It's a public safety initiative at the end of the day," Bowman said. "We are all safer if folks don't leave our facilities and commit new crimes. So we're getting that accomplished for the public, really getting them to self sustain themselves so they're far less likely to demand on public services when they go out."

A study of a Minnesota work release program found that it "increased the odds that participants found a job, the total hours they worked, and the total wages they earned" but had a less noticeable effect on recidivism. A Florida report, meanwhile, found "significantly lower levels of recidivism" if inmates worked at a private company.

While Kansas' recidivism rate has made significant gains in recent years and beats out the national average, advocates long have argued more needs to be done on supporting inmates when they return to society.

A legislative report from last year noted 50% of formerly incarcerated individuals will have issues related to obtaining a driver's license and 20% will leave with no housing; a third of all inmates will wind up back in jail, with half committing new crimes.

Addressing those issues will take more than one program, Parks said.

"It's a Band-Aid on a bullet wound," she said.
(c)2021 The Topeka Capital-Journal, Kan.

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