Leavenworth Cutting-edge work programs in Kansas prisons allow inmates to get job skills while helping pay for the cost of their incarceration.
When 19-year-old Simon decided to rob a Lawrence restaurant at gunpoint with a group of buddies, he hadn't even finished high school, let alone held a job.
But now 24 and a five-year veteran of the Lansing Correctional Facility, Simon has held down a welding job for more than two years and has managed to save several thousand dollars that he hopes to use for college when he gets out of prison.
Besides learning job skills to help him make a living without crime when he re-enters society, Simon has paid the state several thousand dollars in taxes, restitution and room and board fees during his incarceration.
Simon is just one of about 560 Lansing inmates who work in area industrial jobs as part of a partnership between the private sector and the state prison system. The inmates work at three Leavenworth companies, and not only pay taxes from their wages, but pay room and board fees to the state, restitution and money for the victims' compensation fund. Inmates earn $4.25 an hour.
At the three companies -- Henke Manufacturing, Heatron and Zephyr Products -- those payments have added up to more than $2 million that working inmates have put into state coffers. The other portion of what the inmates earn goes into a special savings account they get when they leave prison.
In addition to money inmates pay to those state funds, the money they earn also goes toward items like child support.
Robert, 29, spent five years in prison before being allowed to work at Henke, where he welds snowplows. Robert said he was happy he was earning money to make a fresh start on the outside, and he was even more pleased that he was able to earn some money to support his children.
"It makes me feel good about myself because when I was a little kid, my dad wasn't there," Robert said. "I'm concerned that they don't have all they need, but I'm glad I'm at least doing something now that can help them. This also gives the opportunity to find a place to live and find a job when I get out."
More programs added
Kansas businessman Fred Braun started the first inmate work program at Zephyr Products in 1979, and it was one of the first programs of its kind in the country. Since then Braun, along with partners, has opened two other Leavenworth companies that are located next to the first one he started.
Though not off the prison grounds -- like Zephyr, Henke and Heatron -- five other private companies offer similar work programs. A Topeka packaging company, a Lansing engineering and mechanical design company, a Wichita manufacturing company, a Lansing children's clothing company and a Lenexa brush company operate work programs within various state prisons.
Inmates who participate in the work programs are interviewed and selected by the company and must maintain clean disciplinary records in the correctional facility where they are incarcerated. Workers in the three off-grounds facilities also must be classified as minimum security. Both corrections officials and inmates agree that the private industry jobs are the most coveted duty in prison.
"Working for private industries inside the walls of Lansing is at least the Lexus -- if not the Porsche or Rolls Royce -- of jobs," said Roger Werholtz, deputy secretary of programs and staff development for the Kansas Department of Corrections.
Training for the future
Braun decided to invest in the work program effort after serving on a governor's committee that examined the state prison system. Since starting those programs, Braun has launched a private foundation that creates similar inmate work programs throughout the country.
"I was appalled at the idleness of the inmates," said Braun, a member of the Koch Crime Commission. "I realized they would be worse when they got out."
By training the inmates in a skill and allowing them to earn some money to re-establish their lives outside prison, Braun believes inmates will be less likely to reoffend. Despite being convicts, he said, most of the program alumni don't have trouble finding jobs.
"If people have good job skills and good work habits, they can get a job," Braun said. "Most employers will hire good employees, and the fact that they've been inmates is irrelevant."
DOC officials say the work programs not only help the state by the income they provide, but also promote public safety once inmates are released. Officials say they continually evaluate the programs they offer to ensure they are at least somewhat successful.
"Logic would say someone who works an 8-hour day would begin to internalize that, and once they are released from prison, they would choose to pursue that type of lifestyle," Werholtz said. "If we take our mission to provide public safety seriously, we'll do everything we reasonably can to at least enable them to live a law-abiding lifestyle."
Both DOC and work program officials agree that these types of programs have inherently more value than "chain gangs," in which inmates perform mindless work tasks.
"The resurgence of the chain-gang concept is related to the concept that people want to see offenders punished," said Helen Flanner, Braun's assistant. "Our concept here is that people will work hard, but they'll also get some skills and learn to do better."