Inmates say work bolsters self-worth

Rolls of razor wire glisten above the hot metal roof of Dormitory No. 1 at the Dillwyn Correctional Center. Inmates inside gaze at soap operas or nap.

Five doors down, though, a few dozen inmates belie the prison stereotype of the slouching cell-dweller. Bent double, they weld metal or slide steel onto presses that punch out a fugue-pattern of holes.

While many convicts put their gumption on ice when entering prison, many others want meaningful work. At Dillwyn and other prisons, many would-be tradesmen tired of sweeping floors or washing dishes crowd their names onto waiting lists for workshop jobs, say advocates of efforts to expand prison industry.

Doubts about inmate "careers" run high, especially when it comes to expanding prison industries that might steal jobs from law-abiding citizens. But in one respect, prison industry is not a hard sell: It reduces recidivism by 20 percent.

Conversations with the inmates reveal why. Before his arrest, Ronald Jones drove a truck for 25 years. Once he completes his 10-year sentence for arson, Mr. Jones hopes to get better paying work using the welding skills he learned in prison.

"In the workshop they don't push you when you're learning a trade, they work with you and help you learn any way they can," says Jones.

And the workshops nurture good job habits through rewards. Prison jobs usually pay as little as 23 cents per hour. But inside the workshops, inmates start at 55 cents and get as much as $1.53 while working on a contract with a private company.

A workshop job also "gives a sense of importance in what you're doing," says Kevin Cindric, convicted of second-degree murder. "The bosses treat you good and make you feel you're worthy," he says.

"Inmates leave prison with the self-confidence to take a real-life job instead of a life of crime," says Rep. Bill McCollum (R) of Florida, who plans to propose a bill expanding prison industries.

Some experts say the greater need is for education in prison. "All the evidence shows that work experience alone won't buy you much," says Ray Marshall, Labor Secretary during the Carter administration.

Yet inmates say the most fruitful learning is done on the job. "Just because you have a certificate ... doesn't mean ... [you] can go out and get good work," says Jones.

Moreover, a job satisfies a deeper need. "Once inmates reach 30, they begin to realize how they've wasted their lives," says Dillwyn Warden Lisa Edwards. "Suddenly they want to be able to contribute something."

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