The Corrections Enterprises optician plant is located at the Nash Correctional Facility.
The Corrections Enterprises optician plant is located at the Nash Correctional Facility. Photo credit: Hyun Namkoong

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By Hyun Namkoong

Nearly 2,500 inmates across North Carolina make eyeglasses, wash sheets, transcribe Braille and clean the governor’s mansion for Correction Enterprises, a commercial agency within the N.C. Department of Public Safety.

Karen Brown, executive director of Corrections Enterprises, shows off its showroom. Photo credit: Hyun Namkoong

The inmates work in 31 plants in 17 industries around the state. Correction Enterprises’ facilities are typically located within prisons with the exception of laundry service housed in the N.C. Department of Health and Human and Services. The agency produces an array of low-cost, high-quality products created by inmates that it offers to state, county and local government and nonprofit organizations.

Correction Enterprises’ mission is to “provide marketable job skills and transition opportunities for inmates … while providing quality goods and excellent service to our customers at a savings to the citizens of North Carolina.”

And research, including a major study by the RAND Corporation, finds that former inmates and prisoners who’ve had vocational training while incarcerated are more likely to stay out of the justice system after release.

Skills up

Jennifer Keiffer, 37, is incarcerated in the N.C. Correctional Institution for Women, but she works Monday through Friday in a sales and marketing position in Correction Enterprises’ Raleigh office.

“[It] keeps my skills fresh, teaches me new things. I come to prison and it opens up a whole new path for me,” Keiffer said. “It gives me a new avenue to pursue skills I didn’t have before in an industry I didn’t know anything about before.”

Inmate Jennifer Keiffer says working in sales and marketing at the CE Raleigh office “keeps my skills fresh, teaches me new things.” Photo credit: Hyun Namkoong

Correction Enterprises is required to sell at or below market price, according to Karen Brown, the agency’s executive director. It is also prohibited from taking business away from state vendors.

The agency receives some 5,000 orders for its  industries each month. Its optical plant in Nash County processes about 700 pairs of eyeglasses daily. These eyeglasses are worn by other inmates and state employees, including Gov. Pat McCrory. The last three governors of North Carolina have worn glasses made by inmates, according to Brown.

She said the agency started getting requests from health care providers to sell eyeglasses for Medicaid patients who lost the benefit of free glasses with the 2011 budget cuts.

“We’re trying to help citizens get affordable eyewear,” Brown said.

A bill filed during this legislative session would have allowed Correction Enterprises to sell glasses directly to providers for Medicaid patients and enrollees in the Children’s Health Insurance Program, but it failed to get to the Senate before the crossover deadline on May 1. The bill passed its first reading in the House on Jan. 29, but languished in the health committee.

[pullquote_right]Did you know NC Health News is a non-profit? Last year, a third of our funding came from readers. Please consider a donation today! [/pullquote_right]Correction Enterprises is 100 percent receipt supported, meaning that it funds all of its operations at no cost to the taxpayer. It also gives 5 percent of its gross profits to the N.C. Crime Victims Compensation fund.

The box

Inmate Darrick Belfield said he’d like to work in the eyewear industry when he gets out.

But Michael Lockamy, Corrections Enterprises’ job-placement coordinator, said that though inmates learn job-training skills, there are a number of post-incarceration obstacles.

One of the primary barriers is the “box” on nearly every work application, which asks whether the applicant has ever been convicted of a crime.

Two workers at the Corrections Enterprises glasses plant check on a pair in process. Photo credit: Hyun Namkoong

Dennis Gaddy, executive director of Community Success Initiative, said “banning the box” would be an important step in easing the discrimination people with unfavorable backgrounds face in the employment process.

When a person has checked that box, the application “usually goes into the trashcan. The employer doesn’t give the employee the benefit of the doubt,” he said.

Gaddy stresses that disclosure of criminal history is important, but said that eliminating the box would at least allow people to get a fair shot at employment.

House Bill 612, also known as “Ban the Box,” was filed on April 9 and passed its first reading in the House. But it too failed to make the crossover deadline.

A ‘risk’

Though companies receive federal subsidies for hiring people with a criminal record, many decline to do so.

“Everybody thinks it’s a risk to hire someone with a felony,” Lockamy said. “But the greatest risk is when we don’t help them, because that’s when they do desperate things.”

Lockamy said the taxpayer burden of incarcerating people is too great to not reduce the recidivism rate and give folks a path to re-entering society.

In fiscal year 2012-13, the average cost of prison per day per inmate was $82.70. The state spends almost $1.5 billion annually to incarcerate nearly 40,000 North Carolinians, according to data from the Department of Public Safety.

Prison workers put the finishing touches on a pair of glasses. Photo credit: Hyun Namkoong.

The RAND report found that every dollar spent in educating prisoners or giving them job skills saves four to five dollars in the first three post-incarceration years.

“Based on what we know about rates of recidivism and employment, having some skills does make a former inmate more marketable,” said Brandy Bynum, who led an effort in 2014 to raise the age at which 16- and 17-year-olds enter the adult correctional system.

Lockamy said he recruits companies to hire people with a criminal background by focusing on the “three-non” categories: non-serious, non-sexual and nonviolent.

Still, there are numerous challenges.

The finished product, ready to ship. Photo credit: Hyun Namkoong

“Employment, shelter and transportation are all issues,” Lockamy said. “Some are homeless or don’t own phones.”

“Having that mark on their record – particluarly a felony – does continue to present barriers for continued employment,” Bynum added.

Crime, money and health disparities

Nearly 40,000 North Carolinians are incarcerated in 56 prisons across the state. As of December 2012, North Carolina had the 13th-largest prisoner population in the country. And while only 22 percent of the state’s population is black, 55 percent of its prison population is black.

The mass incarceration of black men has likely contributed to health disparities between white and black Americans. The life expectancy of black people in 2010 was 3.8 years lower than that of white people. Black men have a life expectancy that’s almost five years lower than that of white men.

“Being without work is rarely good for one’s health, but while ‘good work’ is linked to positive health outcomes, jobs that are insecure, low-paid and that fail to protect employees from stress and danger make people ill,” wrote the authors of a groundbreaking report by the British Institute of Health Equity.

The report also found that people who experience long-term unemployment have more adverse health effects.

Safer work environment

Brown said Correction Enterprises also gives inmates a way to occupy their time, reducing inmate idleness and thus improving work-environment safety for correctional officers.

“Inmate idleness causes problems,” she said.

The Corrections Enterprises optical plant is located at the Nash Correctional Facility. Photo credit: Hyun Namkoong

In North Carolina, the hourly wage for inmates employed by Correction Enterprises ranges from 16 to 26 cents. Brown acknowledged that the hourly wage is low, and that she would like for it to be high enough to allow inmates to save money for a successful re-entry to society.

But by state law, inmates are not allowed to earn more than $21 a week.

In 2014, Correction Enterprises had nearly $92 million in sales. Brown said it’s the nation’s second-largest correctional industry by sales and number of employees.

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Hyun Namkoong

Hyun graduated from the UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings Global School of Public Health in the health behavior department and she worked as the NC Health News intern from Jan-Aug 2014.