Con Jobs

Politicians' claims to the contrary, Colorado's business climate isn't all blue skies and sunshine. Just ask the folks at Juniper Valley Products, an umbrella group of production and manufacturing companies whose sprightly name dresses up the fact that its employees are prison inmates.

The bottom line is that state prison labor just can't compete with automation and giant corporate farms. As a result, Juniper Valley's taco-shell factory is being devoured by the competition.

And the hog farm's future is muddy.
The state's correctional-industries program was designed to rehabilitate prisoners and help offset the cost of their care. Prison officials also believe that "busy hands are happy hands" and that eight-hour work shifts reduce in-house violence.

Some inmate jobs provide valuable training that translates into work opportunities on the outside, while other assignments simply teach inmates basic work-survival tools such as being on time. The money isn't much--pay hovers in the $1- to $2-a-day range--but there's a waiting list for the positions, says Randy Jacobs, assistant director of correctional industries.

The Department of Corrections has 35 operations throughout the state, and 1,300 inmates--roughly 13 percent of the state's prison population--are employed. The national average is just 6 percent, Jacobs points out. And as the prison population continues to grow, he says, the department is constantly on the watch for ways to expand its businesses.

Inmates still make license plates, of course. Others build modular furniture, most of which is sold to other state agencies. Canon City prisoners staff the dairy that provides milk to the prisons, and they grow vegetables for mess halls and hay and corn for the cows. (Surplus foodstuffs are sold on the open market.)

Men at the Buena Vista Correctional Facility make saddles. Inmates at the Arkansas Valley prison near Ordway rehab historical artifacts and cultivate zinnias to sell the seeds.

Colorado's Department of Corrections is not alone in its forays into the entrepreneurial world. Prisoners in Hawaii pick pineapples for pocket money. Inmates in Washington state make carabiners for rock climbers, and Texas felons make shoes. Louisiana had profitable data processing and microfilming businesses until state officials discovered that an inmate had used information garnered from the company to strike up correspondences with ladies in New Orleans. In Florida, a nonprofit organization that sells products manufactured by that state's prisoners is making plans to export some of its goods to Latin America.

But in Colorado, as in most other states, prisons are prevented from competing with other companies or displacing civilian workers. Juniper Valley, which is governed by an advisory board of legislators, union members and businesspeople, broke into the taco-shell business more than five years ago after the staff was approached by Candy's tortilla factory in Pueblo.

Frying taco shells had become a costly proposition for Candy's, says Tom Carpenter, controller for Mission Foods (which bought out the Candy's operation in 1994), and the company wished to expand its output of the more popular and profitable tortilla chips. "We were either going to have to start buying [taco shells] from out of state or find an alternative way to do it," says Carpenter. Candy's preferred to keep the business in Colorado, however, because it wanted a fresh product and because taco shells tend to break in shipping.

After speaking with legislators and getting the nod from Local 7 of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, Candy's subcontracted the job of frying taco shells to the prisons. (The company's former taco-frying folks were absorbed into the expanded tortilla-chip business, says Carpenter.) Candy's loaned three of its huge deep fryers to the Arrowhead prison in Canon City, and the prison bought two of its own. Candy's made the corn tortillas in Pueblo and sent them to Arrowhead for processing.

(Carpenter declines to say how much he pays the state to make tacos. Jacobs is coy as well, saying only that all profits are plowed back into the correctional industries.)

In the beginning, business was booming. Seventy inmates in two shifts folded, fried and packaged up to 264,000 taco shells a day.

"We were very pleased," Carpenter says of the inmates' output. "They make a good, quality product." Over time, Carpenter says, Candy's hired several of Arrowhead's "graduates" to work in its Pueblo factory.

Candy's went through some belt-tightening in 1992, but it wasn't until last year--after Mission Foods had bought out Candy's--that the bottom fell out of the prison's taco-shell business. Mission's huge Dallas factory was able to serve many of Candy's customers, Carpenter says. And Jacobs adds that Mission's highly automated California factories were able to make taco shells cheaper and faster than the frying felons can.

Arrowhead was forced to lay off half its taco workforce and cut back to one shift a day. DOC officials have since considered branching out into the tostada-shell business. Unfortunately, Jacobs says, the department's overtures to Mission Foods have met with only a lukewarm response.

The hog business is looking equally bleak, Jacobs says, and although it was "a hard decision," prison officials are cutting their losses and phasing out their piggery.

The hogs were being sold on the open market, but, says Jacobs, like other small farm operations, "we just can't be competitive in the marketplace anymore with the big piggeries in the Midwest. With 200 sows, we just can't compete, and we just didn't feel we could sustain the losses." The 25 inmates who worked at the hog farm will be shifted to the dairy operation, which Jacobs says is being beefed up.

DOC officials have mulled over the idea of expanding into the poultry business, Jacobs notes, but that's a difficult way to make a buck. "We've looked at chickens," he says, "and we haven't completely ruled it out, but disease control is really critical in that industry." Officials aren't confident they could prevent stray germs from ruining that business.

What, then, does Jacobs see in Juniper Valley's future? Computers and compost. Some inmates have already been put to work updating and repairing computers belonging to the DOC. And prison officials are going ahead with plans for a compost company at the Four-Mile facility in Canon City. The DOC is already negotiating with outside businesses to buy that product.

According to Jacobs, composting is a natural venture for the prisons, which can supply a great deal of the necessary raw materials. "The kitchens produce an awful lot of waste," Jacobs says, "and the cows produce a lot of...a lot of, um...They make a lot of compost, too."

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Karen Bowers