"When Tim and I decided to start manufacturing for ourselves there was only one choice—to bring it in here and give the inmates the opportunity to expand their horizons and for us to make a quality product," DeGraff says. A & I hires 30 inmates to produce aluminum mini-blinds, two-inch horizontal blinds, vertical blinds and pleated and cellular shades. But DeGraff and El-Khalidi will tell you, at A & I, a blind is more than a blind. It represents a win/win situation for the company, the state of Washington, the community and—more importantly—for the inmates and crime victims.
"This is a hugely important program," DeGraff says. "When Tim and I did our first hiring five years ago, we came to the same conclusion [about inmates]: What a waste of humanity, and then we send them out on the streets and they just have lost all their skills."
"Or they came in because they didn't have the skills," says El-Khalidi, A & I vice president. "This is an opportunity where we can provide a skill basic enough for them to springboard off. Whether or not they stay in the industry that we are in, at least they are now equipped to go out and secure a job, maintain a pattern and have the pride and confidence in themselves that they can succeed that way."
The program's success can be measured in several ways: the quality of the work being done, the success of inmates handling the 40-hour workweek demands, the profitability of the company, and the accolades of suppliers and the Washington Department of Corrections. But for DeGraff, it's A & I's perfect record. In five years of working inside the state prison, five inmate employees have been released from incarceration. None have been back.
PAYING AND GIVING BACK
Operating inside a state prison is no easy task. Those involved must be flexible, innovative and committed to its success—emotionally and financially. With a higher goal in mind, it can expect few breaks. To begin with, A & I must pay for and supply all of the equipment it needs just as if it were setting up shop outside. "All the machinery, and everything inside including the changes that have to be made to that space, I have to pay for. And I pay for it dearly," DeGraff says.
Some of those costs accrue in downtime and lack of efficiency because A & I must work closely with the Department of Corrections (DOC) so as not to compromise security. In the work area, materials cannot be stacked or stored against any outside wall. A one-foot clearance must be maintained so prison officials can make an unobstructed visual check, which significantly reduces floor and inventory space. And a perpetual security problem is the delivery of raw materials into the prison and the shipment of finished products out.
"We figure about 20 percent of our management downtime is reflected in DOC requirements. That's on a daily basis. That's just management time," DeGraff says. "There's a significant investment in making this work, a lot of hidden expenses."
In addition, A & I pays for its supervising staff to undergo special training, part of a five-week-long program attended by correctional officers covering key control, inmate manipulation and safety. During the training, there's a strong emphasis on supervising inmates and what can be expected working inside an adult correctional facility.
Above all, A & I pays its inmate employees prevailing wages. "They receive comparable wages to the locality that they are in. So they are making anywhere from minimum wage on up," explains Cathy Carlson, Class 1 program manager for the Washington Department of Corrections. The wage range is set by a separate employment security agency, she explains. "We have no control over that. They tell us what is a comparable wage for similar type work in a community," Carlson says.
This is an important point because of the controversy surrounding some prison industries. Critics claim they have an unfair advantage because lower labor costs translate into lower-than-competitive prices. For A & I that's just not the case. DeGraff explains the difference is between being a Class 1 or Class 2 industry. A Class 2 industry is run strictly by the state, it is owned by the state and it is a benefit to the state selling only in state to state agencies and non-profit groups. Inmate employees of a Class 2 business are paid a significantly lower quantity. A Class 1 industry is privately owned, privately funded, must pay prevailing wages and must qualify for the program.
In qualifying, Carlson notes that DOC is interested in startup businesses or business expansions. "We're very concerned about displacing civilian workers," she explains.
The wages earned by inmates are put to good use. Carlson says that once normal federal and state withholdings are deducted, 20 percent of an inmate's paycheck is used to contribute to the cost of his incarceration and 10 percent goes into a mandatory savings account that can't be touched until the inmate is released.
"You can make a mini-blind anywhere," DeGraff says, "but each unit that's being made here is contributing back to the tax dollars of the community. It's paying back the victim compensation fund, into which the inmates directly contribute from their paychecks."
DeGraff and El-Khalidi see these costs as an investment in individuals. "We're providing the opportunity for someone to actually change their life, to give them something positive in a situation that has nothing but negatives," DeGraff says.
A & I's experience in working with inmates has produced many positive outcomes. DeGraff tells of one employee who didn't believe he would make the 30-unit-per-day production level he was required to meet by the end of his third week on the job. He produced only 11 units the first day and 12 the next. But by the end of the first week he was up to 15 and 22 at the end of the second week. Before his three weeks were up the employee was meeting the 30-unit goal.
"He said something that was key to me," DeGraff says. "He said he learned that he can take the pressure of the demand and succeed in doing something. He stuck it out. That individual holds our record for units in a day at 102.
"Even though he has challenges in his life, which he has got to work on, he now has stepping stones that he's already crossed that he wouldn't have gotten if he had been walking the yard."
Another employee is a 50-year-old inmate with no high school diploma and three years left to his term. He has been doing data entry for A & I and is responsible for 5,000 to 6,000 entries a month, each with 20 to 25 bits of information. His work is nearly error-free. DeGraff points out that when he is released, this employee will have a marketable skill and money in a savings account. "How many 50-year-olds without a high school diploma can say that?" he asks.
"Individuals in here want to make changes. You see that internally in the pride and the work that they do," DeGraff says. "When you can overcome racial barriers in a prison and have people work together as a team, that's unique, you're getting somewhere. In a company of this nature we have to overcome those challenges."
A SHINING EXAMPLE
None of A & I's success could be possible without a close, trusting relationship with the Washington DOC. "They are the eyes in the back of my head," DeGraff admits.
The process begins with a job-readiness program in which the inmates must make progress within schooling available inside the institution before they can qualify for work with a Class 1 industry. A high school diploma or GED is now required. The correctional institution then screens the inmates for appropriateness. "It's a volunteer program, so inmates have to be infraction-free, have no problems, in the last six months," Carlson says. "That's a main benefit to the department of having a Class 1 company inside one of our adult correctional facilities. It is a true carrot: keep your nose clean and you have an opportunity to apply to one of these companies," she adds. "For an inmate working inside a prison, working with one of these companies is mentally eight hours a day that they're not in prison. Companies treat them just like civilian workers."
The working relationship between A & I and the DOC can be seen best at times when it's just not possible to operate like a civilian business. For example, there are times DeGraff and El-Khalidi know their workforce won't be available because of something going on in the general prison population, such as a hostage drill. "We have to be prepared for those scenarios because if you aren't you're blinded as to where you're at every day. You're in a prison," DeGraff says.
"DOC is very key that we have to keep our business going," El-Khalidi says. "Their priority, of course, is security—to make sure that's taken care of first—but they are hot on the heels right after that to get things back up and running."
"The institution recognizes that the company still has to operate as a business," Carlson says, "so it's very much a partnership, working back and forth trying to figure out the daily issues that come up. A & I has been one of our shining examples of a private industry inside a prison. Even our correctional captain thinks that they're about the best company."
A & I's efforts also are supported by its list of suppliers, which reads like a who's who in the window coverings industry. It includes Comfortex Window Fashions, American Hardwood Co., Eclipse, Novo Industries, Genes Industry and Turnils. All of which have sent representatives to A & I to help train inmates or set up equipment.
"Coming in here for the first time . . . people have their apprehensions. But after they walk into the industry area, there's no difference from a normal factory. You would never know you're in a prison," DeGraff says.
A & I also is up front with its customers. "We've stressed to the people who buy from us exactly where it's made, what it's doing and who it's benefiting," DeGraff says. "Our management approach is that we have nothing to hide here. People need to know what's going on. It's a very positive thing. What scares people is not knowing the truth and not knowing the facts.
"We are very grateful to be here to make this work. It's a win/win scenario for the prison institution, the inmates, the victims and the community when these guys get out."