Delaware Correctional Industries offers work, skills and purpose for prison inmates

DCI inmate Joseph Dopirak measures steel before using a cutter to help make bunk beds at the welding shop at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

SMYRNA — James T. Vaughn Correctional Center inmate Rory Brokenbrough usually sands furniture, but on Tuesday, he was working on something “special.”

It was his job to sand the rough edges off the recently engraved tribute plaque that memorializes Lt. Steven Floyd, a correctional officer killed in an inmate uprising at the prison on Feb. 1.

“It’s special to me, and I’m glad I have a chance to be part of it,” said Brokenbrough. “Nothing like that should ever happen to anyone. Getting to do this, though, has meaning for us though, because we care, we have hearts too. I’m going to try to do this tribute up as nice as I possibly can.”

The plaque was designed, built and will be painted and varnished by inmates in JTVCC’s Delaware Correctional Industries (DCI) wood shop. Lt. Floyd’s picture will be placed in the center and it will hang in the halls of the Department of Correction’s Dover headquarters.

DCI inmate Rory Brokenbrough uses a fine piece of sandpaper on a custom wood plaque to honor slain guard Lt. Steven Floyd in the wood working area at James T. Vaughn . (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Another inmate, Michael Caldarazzo was responsible for laying out the 3D design and cutting the plaque on DCI’s new computer-driven wood engraving machine.

“It was an honor to do it,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with officers, I have a lot of respect for them. Even though I’ve been in here for nine years, I never knew Lt. Floyd personally. No one should ever lose their life like that.”

A few weeks earlier, inmates also made a badge-shaped wooden memorial plaque for Delaware State Police officer Cpl. Stephen Ballard, who was shot and killed while on duty in April. The plaque was gifted to Cpl. Ballard’s widow.

Brokenbrough and Caldarazzo are only two of 147 inmates at JTVCC enrolled in the DCI program, and woodworking is only one of the many things they do. Inmates are also engaged in garment production, concrete pouring, construction, metal fabrication and welding, state-owned fleet vehicle maintenance, embroidery, silk screening, custom furniture production and repair, upholstery and printing.

DCI’s focus is to give inmates marketable job skills and develop their work ethic in the hope that once they’re released, they’ll find gainful employment and not return to a life of crime. According to the DOC, vocational programs in prisons have been shown to reduce recidivism rates among participants and increase future employment prospects.

A review of twenty six studies of vocational education and correctional industries programs indicated an 11 percent reduction in recidivism as a result of program participation, the DOC claims.

A Delaware Criminal Justice Council study (published last year) examined three cohorts of inmates between 2010-2012. By the end of three years, about 76 percent of inmates released from Delaware prisons are rearrested for a serious offense. More than 65 percent had a reconviction and almost two-thirds had a recommitment.

Comparing that nationally, a study conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics tracked 404,638 inmates from 30 different states and found that within three years, 67.8 percent were rearrested.

As of Wednesday, Delaware’s total prison population was 5,596 inmates.

JTVCC is a Level 5 prison. It’s the state’s largest adult, male correctional facility. Currently, JTVCC houses 2,399 inmates in minimum, medium, and maximum security facilities.

Mark Pariseau, director of DCI, believes that vocational programs are the best chance the state has to make inmates’ reentry into society a smooth, lawful one.

“These inmates are in here because they did something wrong on the outside,” Mr. Pariseau said. “They are paying for their crime. That’s something everyone can understand. But they can actually learn something while they’re in here, help one another and hopefully get out one day and never come back. That’s the way I look at it — that’s our goal.”

What DCI offers

The directly-sought goal of DCI is to provide job skills for inmates, but it produces an array of accompanying benefits. Across their several different industries, DCI can provide market quality goods and services to its customers at a competitive price. Most of the time its customers are state agencies, but they also serve non-profits and citizens of Delaware.

Although some private work is taken, DCI makes a point to not price any competitors out because of its access to inexpensive labor. It prices work with the intention to provide for its programming while staying competitive, Mr. Pariseau said.

The furniture shop is responsible for some of the most delicate and intricate refinishing jobs on state-owned furniture pieces — including many of the chairs and display cases in Legislative Hall.

“It’s beautiful work that these inmates have been trained to do — I work with wood myself and I’m a total novice compared to them,” said Mr. Pariseau. “They do high-skilled furniture work with caning and brushwork that hardly anyone does anymore. It’s great because they can take pride in something they’ve done. They get some self-actualization taking a piece that was old and falling apart and following it through every part of the process to make it beautiful again.”

DCI inmate Michael Caldaazzo uses the automated wood engraving maching in the wood shop at James T. Vaughn. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Dan Atherholt, the construction manger of DCI’s Concrete Design Systems facility (CDS), said that over his division’s 35-year history, inmates have built and maintained mand of the buildings at JTVCC and the DOC’s other prisons.

“We built two of the big buildings here and all of the towers,” he said. “We also built a lot of Howard R. Young Correctional Institution and Sussex Correctional Institution. We save the DOC an enormous amount of money. For instance, we’re doing some repair work on sidewalks in JTVCC right now that we bid out at $55,000 for supplies and labor, a contractor would have cost $96,000.”

DCI still charges for the work they do, albeit usually well below market value, because much of the program is self-sustaining. The funds DCI makes through their efforts are rerolled back into the program for supplies, equipment and labor. The inmates make between .25 cents and $2 per hour (40-hour weeks) depending on skill level and time in the program. Mr. Pariseau claims that DCI pays its inmates the fifth highest correctional industry wages nationally.

The industries even make enough money to pay part of the correctional officer staff that run security and act as “trade instructors”.

“Ten staff members are paid with appropriated funds that we generate through our operations, while the remaining 15 are still paid through the state’s general fund,” said DCI operations manager Dave Owen. “We’re an estimated five years away from enterprise status, where our entire operation is self-sufficient and pays for itself.”

DCI inmate Joseph Dopirak, left, talks to the Director of DCI Mark Pariseau at the welding shop at James T. Vaughn. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

According to the DOC, DCI is allocated $3,145,200 in appropriated special funds authority in the FY 18 Budget, along with $1,400,600 in general fund authority.

Inmate Timothy Lovato started working in the garment shop when it first opened 16 years ago. The shop makes all the DOC’s inmate uniforms, towels, washcloths, linens and bedsheets. He’s trained himself on every sewing machine and tool in the shop, and even how to repair and service each one.

“I personally like to do positive and constructive things, and it’s been really important to keep my mind busy,” said Lovato. “When I get out, I’ll look for a job right away, I’m not afraid to take things apart and fix them so hopefully I’ll find some work doing that.”

Lovato is scheduled to be released in October. Over his time working, the 58-year-old saved up almost $3,000 of his wages to help ease his transition back into society.

“Life” skills are also on offer for DCI inmate workers. Mr. Atherholt said often inmates come to him without even knowing how to read a tape measure.

“We’re teaching construction, batching concrete, metal fabrication, operating heavy equipment like cranes and forklifts and welding,” he said. “We’re giving them a chance to go straight once they get out — a good equipment operator can make $50 an hour. But doing this work also builds confidence for these guys and teaches them work ethics. They get out here every morning at 6 a.m. and work till 1 p.m. It’s an emotional boost for them and they get to be outside.”

Inmate Angel Torres has been working in the metal/concrete shop for about six months. Torres used to work in construction before being incarcerated, but he’s picked up new and marketable skills through the CDS program.

“I already knew how to weld a little, but I’ve learned more about metal fabrication and working with different kinds of materials,” he said. “I’ve been incarcerated for going on 10 years, I’ll be released in 2021 and I hope to get back into this type of work when I get out. While I’m here though, I am keeping my skills sharp so I can get a job. Also, just coming outside every day helps relieve stress.”

Mr. Pariseau said that DCI fosters a spirit of cooperation is between inmates working together at a common aim, which can have the effect of nurturing underdeveloped social skills.

“They learn a ton of soft skills — for instance, you really can’t go to school to learn how to get along with people,” he said. “The work socializes them, gets them working together and helps them apply some basic conflict solving strategies.”

Inmate workers in the program also earn additional “good conduct time” for participating in the program — 5 good days for 102 hours of work per month. Good conduct is something correctional officer/trade instructor Lori Quinney has come to expect out of the inmates working in the garment shop she oversees.

“People ask me all the time, ‘aren’t you scared to work there?” she said. “But honestly, I have no trouble with these guys, they are respectful. They want to behave because they don’t want to screw this up and lose their jobs here. This is their livelihood. It’s a routine that so much better than just having to sit in a room all day everyday.”

It’s argued by some of the trade instructors that their shops and facilities in the prison are likely the safest, despite the fact that potential weapons such as scissors, hammers and even heavy machinery are easily accessible. Inmates in all the DCI programs outnumber correctional officer staff by a large margin.

In Mr. Atherholt’s 17 years of operating CDS and the metal shop, there hasn’t been a single escape, and virtually no disciplinary issues.

“As long as I’ve been here, we’ve only had two inmate fights, and they were over even before my officers could get there,” he said. “These guys know that work is a privilege, they don’t mess around.”

Although DCI doesn’t offer inmates any special job certifications through the Department of Labor or third parties, they are pushing for the ability to do so. DCI does provide inmates with references to take to potential employers that catalogue their training and hours worked on a given task.

Growing DCI

Since Mr. Pariseau was promoted to director last year, he’s been pushing aggressively to grow the DCI program, hoping to add new industries to train inmates on and to increase the number of potential inmate who can work for DCI.

On Tuesday, he said DCI is nearly 80 percent finished with the construction of a new $1.5 million automotive skills facility outside JTVCC’s fences to replace their existing motor pool building. He expects it to be complete in late September. The new building has the potential for six car lifts (DCI currently has four) and may make it possible for DCI to serve more citizens instead of just state agencies.

DCI inmate Angel Torres, left, and trade instructor Eddie Tolbert weld steel to make bunk beds at the welding shop at James T. Vaughn . (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“It’s going to be an outside facility so I have to use only level four inmates, but we’re hoping to train them in basic things like oil changes, fluids, brakes and tires — Meineke and Jiffy Lube stuff so they can get jobs at those types of places,” said Mr. Pariseau. “We’ll still service mostly state vehicles, but I’d like to open it to the public. We’ll need to get permissions and fully look into liability.”

After moving out of the current motor pool building, Mr. Pariseau says that it will become a new engraving and embroidery facility.

“The Delaware Division for the Visually Impaired doesn’t have the contract for engraving and embroidery anymore and a lot of that grant-purchased equipment was going to go into surplus or storage so I think it’s an opportunity to bring that over here,” he said. “It’ll give us a chance to offer some more mechanical and computer skills to inmates.”

New equipment purchases often add to DCI’s abilities to train inmates and push the program closer to self-sufficiency. The wood engraving machine used to cut the Lt. Floyd and Cpl. Ballard tributes is one such example.

“It was our latest machine and we bought it for around $4,800,” said Mr. Pariseau. “I like when investments pay themselves back in three years, but this one has already paid for itself in less than a year and there are jobs ordered by state agencies backed up.”

However, to push growth to the next level, Mr. Pariseau hopes that he can loosen policy to enable more potential inmate workers to join the program.

“I’m trying to get the DOC to make some policy changes,” he said. “Some things are statutes, and we can’t change those, but if we’re really going to help reduce recidivism and help these guys, we should adjust some of the classification policies and rules. For our buildings outside the fence, we can’t have anyone with weapon or sexual charges go out there. But no one else, women or children, are coming into those areas. Some of my best inmate workers are my lifers. They have continuity, it increases their quality of life and they teach the other inmates and keep this thing going.”

Most trade instructors, those directly affected by the inmate classifications allowed in DCI, seem to agree. Mr. Atherholt said that the concrete and metal shop did some of its best work years ago when they were able to field around 100 inmates and keep the building in 24-hour operation.

“Things started to change around 6 or 7 years ago with security concerns,” said Mr. Atherholt. “It’s harder for me to get workers outside the fence because of certain policies. I used to have lifers working outside here with me all the time though and there were never incidents.”

The CDS program is unique in that it’s a 7-acre fenced in facility outside the main JTVCC barriers. Although Mr. Atherholt sees how returning to 100 inmates would be tricky with staffing concerns, he would like to see his worker number rise to 20 or 30. As of Tuesday he only had six inmates working with him, welding 280 3-teired bunk beds for the Howard R. Young Correctional Institution.

“At one time, about 25 years ago when they used to track it closely, we had an 80 percent non-return rate for this department,” added Mr. Atherholt.

“This program has such potential. Every state has some sort of construction-type program. There is so much we can teach and it’s really a great transition industry. If you get out of prison and you’re trying to join a construction crew that works outside (not in peoples’ homes), there are less background checks. You can show up on the job site, prove yourself and just work.”

Short staffed

In the face of the chronic short-staffing issues the DOC has been plagued with for the past several years, program expansion may seem like a dream. As of Wednesday, DOC spokeswoman Jayme Gravell confirmed that there were currently 264 vacancies for the correctional officer position — including two trade instructor positions. The Correctional Officers Association of Delaware issued stern warnings before (and after) the Feb. 1 inmate uprising that staffing shortages and overtime requirements were creating a dangerous atmosphere in state prisons.

Undeterred, Mr. Pariseau seems convinced that DCI actually adds to the overall security and safety of the prison, and that under-staffing should not stand in the way to expanding the program’s reach.

“There is an atmosphere of cooperation amongst the workers, I have never witnessed any issues among the workers and they themselves help keep any issues from happening,” he said. “The under-staffing of the DOC has not affected our operations and as for the safety of my staff, they look at security first then the job.”

Delaware citizens interested in patronizing DCI’s services and products can visit dci.delaware.gov/index.shtml for more details.

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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