If the California Prison Industry Authority, known as Calpia, were a publicly traded conglomerate, analysts might be discouraged by its latest results. Sneaker orders are off 45 percent. Two eyeglass factories had to close. And forecasts for prison-made modular-building components are bleak.
Since its founding in 1983, California’s inmate work program has grown into the largest in the U.S. About 5,000 convicts punch the clock at 57 state-operated prison factories, where they earn 35¢ to 95¢ an hour making dentures, recycling toner cartridges, and cutting meat, among many other tasks. But the program is endangered by a systematic thinning of inmate ranks. Two years ago, California lawmakers ordered state prison officials to reduce overcrowding and transfer nonviolent felons to county jails. Once at 175 percent of capacity, the inmate population at state penitentiaries is down to about 150 percent—and authorities hope to get it to 137.5 percent this summer.
That shift means fewer low-level convicts are available to stitch sneakers. And demand is down because the prison system itself is the biggest consumer of inmate-produced goods; fewer prisoners needing sneakers means fewer shoe orders to fill. Last year the program finished $8.8 million in the red; revenue fell 18 percent from five years before and is expected to decline again this year.
By law, Calpia must be self-sufficient. It can’t cover losses with taxpayer funds, only its own cash reserves. So it needs more customers to avoid cuts to product lines or related job-training programs that don’t bring in revenue. The trouble is, state law allows the agency to sell only to government entities—and few public bodies in California are awash in money right now. Eric Reslock, a Calpia spokesman, says it plans to start courting counties more aggressively.
The prison factories do more than churn out products. Over a recent three-year period, ex-cons who’d worked in the program returned to jail 26 percent to 38 percent less often than other offenders, according to the agency. “Everyone says the most valuable product we put out there is a person who’s not going to go back and re-offend, who has job skills and dedication,” says Josh Bayer, a Calpia manager at a Chino facility where workers pasteurize juice and wash laundry. “That’s our product: rehabilitation.”