The foray by Ohio Penal Industries (OPI), a branch of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, into manufacturing toilet paper has turned out to be a crappy deal for taxpayers.
OPI creates a wide variety of products at 24 manufacturing sites in 16 prisons. The agency’s 1,400 prisoner workers and 120 civilian employees produce license plates, clothes, soap, eyeglasses, flags, office furniture, dentures, brooms, outdoor furnishings and more.
OPI has a guaranteed clientele. “State law requires that state agencies purchase through OPI if OPI can meet the state agency need,” says Ohio’s purchasing handbook. “In the event of an emergency or a special need, OPI may grant a waiver to the agency to purchase items elsewhere.”
Between its state agencies and prisons, Ohio purchases $1.4 million worth of toilet paper annually. OPI bought a $600,000 machine that cuts bulk toilet paper and installed it at the Belmont Correctional Institution. Eighteen prisoners are employed in the program, which had net income of over $487,000 as of March 2011.
“OPI got into the toilet paper business about two years ago. We thought we could manufacture toilet paper and sell it to institutions at a lower price than they could buy it from suppliers,” said Drew Hildebrand, OPI assistant chief. That plan has not worked out.
Joshen Paper & Packaging Co. of Cleveland has a contract with Ohio’s Department of Administrative Services. The state can purchase a case of 96 rolls of toilet paper from Joshen for $41.33 a case. By contrast, OPI sells the same product for $48.96 – an 18 percent increase. When OPI entered the toilet paper market, Joshen saw its sales to the state plummet to less than $100,000 annually while taxpayers paid the increased cost of the prison-made toilet paper.
Buying trash bags from OPI rather than private vendors was another bad deal. Private vendors contracted to sell 33-gallon trash bags in quantities of 250 to the state for $7.30. OPI sells a similar product for $13.39.
State officials say their hands are tied at trying to save taxpayer money. “We’re following the law as the legislature dictates to us. We really don’t have a choice in the matter,” said Administrative Services spokesman Pieter Wykoff.
OPI’s sales have grown to $26 million annually. The agency’s labor costs are minimal, as entry-level prisoner laborers are paid only 21 cents an hour. Even the skilled positions, such as mechanics who work on state vehicles, receive well below minimum wage at $1.23 an hour.
Hildebrand said that OPI saves money in other ways than producing cheaper products. “We’re pulling inmates out of the dorms and providing them with meaningful industrial training,” he noted. “Sometimes, it may not look like OPI is doing what’s best for all agencies, but anytime we can provide training, it’s a plus.”
OPI recently added a project to refurbish trash dumpsters, and the agency plans to do business with halfway houses, community colleges and county jails. Statistics indicate that prisoners who work for OPI have lower recidivism rates.
“I don’t know if we’re saving money in the long run, but there’s also the practical application of training the inmates to do something productive when they get out, so they don’t come back to prison and cost taxpayers more,” said Wykoff.
Whether such training translates to jobs in the freeworld remains doubtful, however, when prison industry programs usurp jobs from companies that otherwise might hire ex-prisoners with job skills – such as manufacturing toilet paper.
Sources: Columbus Dispatch, www.mariononline.com, Correctional Institution Inspection Committee Report for Belmont Correctional Institution (May 2-3, 2011)
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