Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
A farmhand grins like a proud papa as he reaches into the dairy’s walk-in refrigerator and pulls out a chocolate half-pint. The carton looks like any other brand, except for the cryptic manufacturer’s label on its side: “Produced and Packaged by D.C. Agricultural Services (D.C.D.C.), Lorton, VA.” Milk made by inmates, for inmates. An illustration on the carton depicts two cows near a silo in a meadow. While one buries its mouth in the grass, the other looks up with a glum expression, the victim of too much hard time in the fields.
Milk production is one of several self-supporting enterprises owned and operated by Lorton’s prison industries and staffed largely by inmates. The prison industries program also keeps inmates busy with metal fabrication, furniture rehabbing, garment manufacture, and bus and subway seat reupholstery. All told, the ventures employ about 400 inmates and generate annual sales of about $6 million—enough to cover the costs of the businesses’ equipment, raw materials, maintenance, and wages for inmates and staff.
Swept away with the success of prison industries, the D.C. Council, Mayor Marion Barry, and the Department of Corrections want to take the program one step further: They hope to lure private business “inside the wall.” Under this plan, CEOs would set up factories on Lorton’s 3,000-acre property and hire convicted murderers, rapists, and burglars as their foremen and line workers. The vehicle for turning Lorton into an industrial park is the “Prison Industries Act of 1996,” a law enacted this May to authorize the District government to forge partnerships with private businesses and to produce goods at Lorton for sale to the public. “I would like to see both traditional [prison] industries and the private-sector industries double, triple, quadruple” their sales revenues, says prison industries Director Ray Sullivan.
But before Sullivan’s vision can materialize, District officials must lure companies inside Lorton’s troubled walls—a stretch at best. After all, Lorton ain’t Reston. If the promise of occasional work stoppages and workplace violence aren’t enough to dissuade the average pinstripe type, the nightmare of accepting the D.C. government as a business partner should be. Any company owner with one eye and a cerebral cortex will see the potential poisons that lurk in this cheap lunch.
You can’t blame District leaders for enlisting the wheels of industry to wring out Lorton’s problems. Private investment would do wonders for a facility dogged by just about every crisis in the corrections book: riots, staff shortages, poor management, and substandard medical services. If the cell block doubled as the manufacturing floor, correctional officers would have fewer idle prisoners to worry about, inmates would gain canteen money and work experience, and families and victims of convicts would benefit from mandatory wage deductions. “After working hard all day,” says Sullivan, “[prison workers] go back to their dormitories tired, and they don’t have time to get mischievous.”
Nor is the idea untested. Five years ago, Oregon began marketing “Prison Blues,” stylish inmate-produced jeans “made on the inside to be worn on the outside.” The project now has all the trappings of a Madison Avenue business: color catalog, 800 number, and a Web site. Hundreds of outlets worldwide stock the jeans, which have attained a sort of cult status. Some 40 inmates keep the 47,000-square-foot plant humming.
Elsewhere, businesses are not exactly hurdling razor wire to access prison labor (private firms employ fewer than 1 percent of all state and local prisoners nationwide), but half of all state prison systems have entered into at least one joint venture with a private firm. South Carolina and California lead the pack, each employing about 300 inmates. California’s largest enterprise is a TWA phone reservation service staffed by 65 youth offenders. Its other prison workers mold faucets, assemble circuit boards, perform data entry, recycle garbage, and run a pig farm—all for private corporations. South Carolina’s prisoners assemble electronic cables, sew graduation gowns, and make bedspreads and draperies. Although firms pay market wages, inmates see only about a third of their earnings after deductions for victims’ programs, room and board, family support, and taxes.
District officials would love to replicate the success stories of other states, but the closest they will come to “Prison Blues” is another cell block mutiny. Remember: This is the District, which as a partner with the private sector has shown all the business savvy of a man shucking aluminum cans from a trash bin into a shopping cart.
It’s Oct. 10, 1991. The clock has just struck 3:00 p.m., and Wilhelmina J. Rolark, chair of the D.C. Council’s judiciary committee, is banging her gavel. On the agenda is a proposal to lure private firms to Lorton. The hearing is a perfect opportunity to get feedback from local businesses, the putative partners for the District government under the proposal. What are their main concerns? What incentives, if any, would be sufficient to draw them into Lorton?
But a glance at the list of 45 witnesses shows just one from the private sector. Local businesses repeated their no-show performance at a 1993 hearing on similar legislation. And no additional hearings were held for the 1995 bill that became law this May.
Barry and the council decided this year that if the business community wouldn’t come to them, they would go to the business community. So they tapped two ex-cons to work as their surrogates.
Corrections employee Ron Yarborough, one of the two, is a formidable salesman. Already well-known among area firms, Yarborough has spent more than 10 years expertly massaging their consciences, self-interest, and fears in an effort to create jobs for ex-offenders. Several years ago, for example, Yarborough brought two convicted drug dealers with him to a local auto dealership in hopes of finding them jobs. “They said, no, they didn’t want to have anything to do with it. And I said, ‘Well, do you want me to boycott? Because ex-offenders buy automobiles from you, their parents buy automobiles from you.’” The threat worked, and the two ex-cons were soon walking the showroom floor. “After about two weeks, I got a call. And what happened, man, it was phenomenal….The guy said, ‘Mr. Yarborough, do you have any more like these two?’ Man, they were the top salesmen; they went onto a training program and started managing dealerships.”
Yarborough’s own résumé lends credibility to his pitch on inmate labor. The 46-year-old is an ex-con who went straight, having served a four-year term for bank robbery from 1970 to 1973. While inside, Yarborough began working toward a bachelor’s degree and never backslid. “From the time I was incarcerated to this day,” he says, “I’ve dedicated my life to helping those that have been incarcerated.”
Teamed with a straight-arrow, buttoned-down type, Yarborough could be half of a powerful recruiting team. Instead, the District committed corporate hara-kiri by pairing him with Rhozier “Roach” Brown, a Barry pal who has spent half of the past 30 years in jail for crimes ranging from murder to drug dealing to stealing money from a children’s charity.
Brown’s career on the outside has had its moments. Between prison sentences, he won several Emmy awards for his work as a local television producer. But it was his rallying of ex-offenders and their families on behalf of Barry’s 1994 election campaign that earned him a $32,000-per-year administration slot. Brown is known as a charmer, a sometimes-effective advocate with a penchant for rambling discourse. “Right now, with this conservative mood in the country, folks don’t want to have nothing to do with people in prison or coming out,” he explains. “Or not only that, people who are in a lower economic status than themselves….So the bottom line, whatever the problem is, we’re not even dealing with that. We try to stay on the positive vein, and whoever we can talk to that can help us or facilitate. So that’s what we’re doing.” Got that?
Councilmember Bill Lightfoot (At-Large), who sponsored the new prison industries law, considers Brown and Yarborough unfit to serve as prison industries’ co-ambassadors to local businesses. “I just believe it will be very difficult to attract businesses to Lorton unless the people marketing prison industries have a knowledge of the private sector,” he says. “As good as Mr. Yarborough and Mr. Brown may be, they don’t add anything to the government’s equation.”
The plate of financial incentives the District is serving should be enough to tempt any red-blooded, green-shaded capitalist: low-rent factory space, partial or total exemption from District taxes, no health-plan payments, no employee pensions.
Ponder too the advantages of employing a literally captive work force: No more lame excuses for missing work (e.g., car battery died, baby sitter crapped out), the ability to fire workers without legal repercussion, and the right to slap a “Made in the U.S.A.” label on prison-made products.
But the warning signs at Clink Inc. loom every bit as large as the dollar signs. Prominent Virginia politicos—for instance, Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chair of the House’s D.C. subcommittee, and Virginia Attorney General James Gilmore—are fighting to close the Fairfax County facility, citing the danger it poses to neighboring residents. Several D.C. councilmembers support the idea of closing Lorton, and Barry in his recent budget proposal offered a plan to padlock it.
Given the threat of closure, will firms really be willing to invest in a factory at Lorton? Sullivan believes closure may be the No. 1 roadblock for the prison industries plan. “If [private firms] were aware of the political climate, I think their first question [would be], ‘Hey, how long would I be able to have a facility here?’” he says.
But even if the District handed Lorton’s deed to would-be investors, there’s no guarantee that corporate managers would set foot on the complex without a retinue of world-class security guards. Consider the fate of four Lorton correctional officers assaulted by prisoners with homemade knives last August. Or the Feb. 5, 1995, riot in which several maximum-security inmates escaped from their cell block, leading to four stabbing attacks on guards plus assaults with footlockers, a battery-filled sock, and lightbulbs.
Sullivan views the disturbances as a rather unfortunate anomaly that shouldn’t deter companies from exploring opportunities at Lorton. “I don’t see any immediate danger of anything occurring,” says Sullivan. “I mean, it could always occur, but you just keep your head up and ears perked.” And Department of Corrections Director Margaret Moore acknowledges security pitfalls at Lorton but insists the facility is ready to host businesses. “Within a correctional environment, you always have to be concerned about safety. I’m not so concerned about safety that I would dissuade anyone from considering [investing],” she says.
Gwyn Smith Ingler of the Correctional Industries Association, a trade group representing corrections staff, acknowledges that prison industries are not your average workplace. “[Private firms] need to understand that this isn’t the plant that they used to have in Missoula, Mont. It just doesn’t translate,” she says.
With risks like these, it’s no wonder area businesses aren’t storming Lorton’s crumbling gates.
“We don’t have a prospective applicant pending that I’m aware of,” says Sullivan.
Still, Brown and Yarborough claim to have scared up interest among local firms in several prison-labor projects: tennis-shoe manufacturing, prefabricated housing, repairing wheelchairs, and recycling tires and other waste products.
According to Yarborough, at least five companies have signed what amount to letters of intent to do business at Lorton. But with one exception, he won’t provide names. “We’re not at liberty to show [them] to you yet….It’s too early.” Yarborough insists the information is so confidential that he has not disclosed it to Moore or Sullivan.
Yarborough did identify one interested entrepreneur: James Ingram, a vocational trades instructor at the Prince George’s County Correctional Center. Ingram, who heads his own firm, Design Recycle, proposes to open a recycling plant outside Lorton staffed largely with ex-cons. He would establish a corollary training program within Lorton to prepare inmates to staff the plant on their release. “It’s an environmental issue,” he says. “And there are products waiting to be made from recycled waste.” But Ingram doubts many other business owners would consider investing in Lorton. “You’ve got to deal with the prison population. A lot of companies don’t want the headache,” he says.
Like a true salesman, Yarborough says the risks for private businesses at Lorton are overblown. In his view, a middle manager working at Lorton industrial park takes as much risk stepping into the shower in the morning as stepping onto a production floor teeming with bona fide inmates. “Every day you wake up, you’re at risk. Every minute you breathe, you are at risk,” says Yarborough.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.