At the Vandalia Correctional Center, some prisoners spend their days outside their cell, working for less than the state’s minimum wage producing food.
In 2020, workers at the Vandalia shop produced more than 420 tons of chicken, 178 tons of turkey, 67 tons of salami and 48 tons of bologna. They also produced hundreds of thousands of gallons of skim milk and vegetable oil.
This is part of Illinois Correctional Industries, an Illinois Department of Corrections program which offers prisoners jobs making products that are then sold to private businesses, nonprofits, state agencies and other parts of the Illinois Department of Corrections.
This summer, the program ended sale of products made in its shops to anyone outside the state’s Department of Corrections as part of a change to the ICI business model. The change went into effect June 30.
In Illinois, about 1,100 prisoners — 2.7% of the state’s prison population — worked for ICI in 2018. Last year, however, that figure fluctuated as the prison population shrank due to pandemic-related policies limiting the size of the prison population.
Men and women in ICI facilities are put to work grooming dogs, doing graphic design and recycling waste. Others work in shops that produce a little of almost everything: reading glasses, brooms, floor cleaner, executive desks, street signs, clothing, coaster sets and donuts to name a few.
These products and services have mostly been sold to the DOC over the years, but 15% of ICI’s $33 million of sales in 2020 were made to other groups: state agencies, nonprofits, businesses and local governments, according to their state required annual report.
Others were produced for specific programs, like eyeglasses made for Illinois Medicaid recipients. In 2015, ICI workers produced 375,000 pairs per year, though that had fallen to just over 100,000 in 2018 and about 50,000 last year.
ICI sales have been falling in general after floating around $50 million in the early 2010s.
This posed a threat to ICI, since it’s supposed to be “self-funded,” paying for its own expenses with the sales of products.
“These product lines were funded by billing back customers,” said ICI Chief Administrative Officer Jared Brunk. “The financial health of Industries was in jeopardy.”
To address this, ICI quietly announced a change to their model.
“This new model, which aligns programmatic efforts with a long-term vision focused on improving outcomes and increasing vocational and educational opportunities, means that ICI will no longer be selling its products and services to other agencies or organizations,” said an update posted on the ICI website.
“What we decided to do was to bring industries within DOC and not worry about sales, predicating that program not on sales, but on vocational training,” said Brunk.
Brunk said he isn’t aware of other states that have tried this model.
This change interrupts parts of the supply chain for nearly every state agency. Prior to this year, Chief Procurement Offices for general services, higher education, the department of transportation and the state’s capital development board set a list of items agencies were required to buy from ICI.
Though the lists of required items were set separately for each office, the Chief Procurement Office for General Services required items included common cleaning products, like neutral floor cleaner, mops, brooms, spray bottles, buffing pads and squeegees. Other items include mattresses, park benches and street signs.
This practice was required by state law.
The goal with the change is to focus on the educational aspects of the program and make it less focused on operating like a business, according to Brunk.
“We’re working very closely with our programming department and our industry colleagues,” he said.
This includes partnerships with companies like Caterpillar, which has training simulators in ICI shops that offer inmates a chance to learn how to operate machinery, a valuable skill for life after prison.
These skills are part of what contributes to ICI workers having a recidivism rate of about 20%, meaning about two in ten return to prison within three years. According to state data, the general population of Illinois prisoners had a recidivism rate of 41% last year.
Alongside these sales policy changes, there will be some staffing changes to the program, though officials say it won’t affect prisoners working for ICI.
“There will not be any individuals that will have their pay reduced,” said Brunk.
Thanks to an increase in this year’s state budget, Brunk said pay rates will actually increase by about 10% for ICI workers.
The prisoners working for ICI, meanwhile, are paid between $0.30 and $2.25 per hour, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
The National Correctional Industries Association, a trade group for programs like ICI, justifies the low wages in many prison labor programs by likening the jobs done by prisoners to apprenticeships.
The money incarcerated people do earn through work while in prison can be saved for after release or used in prison to cover costs like phone calls and commissary goods.
“Jobs have a lot of positive benefits in terms of providing opportunity for people,” said Jennifer Vollen-Katz, the executive director of the John Howard Association, a non-profit advocacy and watchdog group focusing on Illinois prisons.
Vollen-Katz added that she hopes prisoners’ wages will someday catch up to wages earned by non-incarcerated people.
She pointed to federal prison policies like the federal Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program, which certifies programs like ICI to sell goods across state lines if they meet certain requirements, including paying the prevailing wage for work done by prisoners.
Vollen-Katz said paying competitive wages should be a goal for the state’s prison system.
“We’d like to see that happening,” said Vollen-Katz.