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Prison business wants to sell products to state employees

BISMARCK (AP) — North Dakota is considering whether to allow the state’s 16,000 employees to buy products made by people incarcerated in the state prison system.

Inmates produce everything from garbage bags to mattresses to barbecue grills for sale to government and tribal entities and nonprofits. Orders have slowed amid the coronavirus pandemic, especially from the prison labor industry’s once bread-and-butter office furniture operation, as an increasing number of employees work from home, according to the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which introduced the legislation.

Rick Gardner, director of Rough Rider, the manufacturing operation at the state prison in Bismarck, said making the items gives people in prison work and skills. Gardner pitched the legislation Thursday to the Senate Government and Veterans Affairs Committee, which gave the bill a unanimous “Do Pass” recommendation. The full Senate will vote on the proposal later.

Fewer work opportunities make for a “less safe environment” inside the prison system and out, Gardner said.

“If they don’t have good job opportunities on the outside, they may be destined to come back to us,” Gardner said in an interview.

Up to 200 inmates are employed at the prison’s manufacturing business, or about 13% of the population at the state penitentiary.

Only inmates who have proven good behavior and with a high school degree or equivalent are eligible for employment at Rough Rider, which was established in 1975. GED classes are offered, as are courses ranging from computers and graphic design to welding.

The average pay to an inmate is about $1.67 an hour, though it can be as low as 45 cents hourly, Gardner said. The industry is self-sustaining from its sales, which have been between $5 million to $12 million in recent years.

Wages earned by inmates allows them to “send a portion of their earnings home to support their families, offsetting the need for additional taxpayers assistance programs,” Gardner said.

Nearly all products produced at the facility, including some prison clothing, would be available for purchase by state employees. The manufacturing operation also produces license plates for the state, which can’t be sold, Gardner said.

Only state employees are eligible to make the personal purchases.

Furniture sales typically make up more than 80% of Rough Rider’s revenue, though it has been shrinking in recent years and most markedly in 2020 with the pandemic, Gardner said.

“During the pandemic, state agencies’ staff was all working from home, so there wasn’t a need for more chairs and desks,” Gardner said. “While COVID-19 may come and go, we expect that the trend toward working from home is here to stay.”

Gardner said Rough Rider Industries workers made about 100,000 masks during the pandemic for emergency officials and others, but they were sold at cost. The facility also is producing protective packaging to safely transport vials of coronavirus vaccine, but also at no profit, he said.

Matthew Gardner, the director of the Greater North Dakota Chamber, said the prison manufacturing business “does a lot of good things” but some businesses “may have issues” with offering prison-made goods available for sale to state employees.

The key, he said, “is figuring out what that balance is.”