PRIDE celebrates 25 years


Inmate Jacqueline Ray attaches black stripes to the sides of uniform pants. Ray's job at the PRIDE sewing factory inside Lowell Correctional Institution will pay her up to 55 cents an hour for her work.

Published: Sunday, October 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, October 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.

The nonprofit company, which provides inmates with paying jobs inside prisons, is looking to expand

Lowell, Fla.

Vanita D. Frazier is making money. It's not much, but more than about 96 percent of all other state prison inmates.

Frazier earns 55 cents an hour by running two pieces of fabric at a time through a specialty sewing machine to form uniform sleeves.

"It's not that hard to do," said Frazier, who is serving a life sentence at Lowell Correctional Institution in Marion County. "And I like to work here."

Frazier is one of 69 women employed in a sewing factory run by Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises Inc. doing business as PRIDE Enterprises. The nonprofit company is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year by getting back to its primary mission - providing inmates with paying jobs inside prison fences.

In 1981, the state Legislature created PRIDE, the first public-private, nonprofit prison partnership in the nation. Lawmakers directed the company to focus on four missions; provide work-training programs and post-release job placement, reduce inmate idleness, reduce the cost of state government and simulate a real-world working environment.

PRIDE has had successes among the 36 businesses it operates including: Cross City Correctional Institute winning a string of international awards for quality printing; inmates at Union Correctional Institution earning national certification as dental laboratory technicians; and hundreds of former inmates finding legal jobs paying living wages in all sorts of businesses outside the state's prisons.

The company has also had its failures, including a situation that nearly bankrupted the nonprofit. In its annual report released several weeks ago, PRIDE referred to the near financial collapse as a "failed association with its former service provider Industries Training Corporation."

In the late 1990s, the governing board of PRIDE created Industries Training Corp. - ITC - a for-profit, spin-off company. At the time, board members said the new firm would compete in the international marketplace while providing payroll and other administrative chores for PRIDE in return for 10 percent of PRIDE's monthly revenue. ITC also claimed it would take over employment placement for former inmates who had successfully worked in PRIDE businesses inside state prisons.

The reality was far different. Over a five-year period, PRIDE found itself paying ITC's bills, monthly bills so large that PRIDE appeared poised to fall into bankruptcy.

Current PRIDE President Jack Edgemon said the company posted losses for six years, including a $6 million loss in 2003 and a $10 million loss in 2004. In 2005, the first year following a split with ITC, Edgemon said PRIDE staged a huge financial turnaround, posting a $6 million gain. PRIDE also filed a lawsuit against ITC in Pinellas County in 2005, seeking to recoup millions of what PRIDE officials said were loans to ITC.

The suit was settled out of court a month ago for $537,000 to be paid to PRIDE by ITC over four years.

Change of focus

PRIDE officials said that at the same time that PRIDE was struggling with how it would proceed, the prison system in Florida was undergoing a paradigm shift away from rehabilitation to ensuring prison sentences were punishment, not a brief time-out from society.

Over the past decade or so, Florida's Legislature enacted get-tough laws, including extended sentences for habitual offenders and a requirement that inmates serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. The result was the need for more prison beds to house a growing inmate population.

To come up with money for additional beds and other costs associated with a growing prison population, expenses were cut, including basic and vocational education budgets that were slashed to nearly nothing. In 2002, $30 million and 62 full-time prison jobs were eliminated from the education budget. Meanwhile, privatization and outsourcing by the state government significantly cut into sales of PRIDE products to state agencies.

The 2004 hurricanes also took a toll on the firm's agricultural interests. Orange groves and sugarcane fields were decimated and equipment and facilities significantly damaged, especially by Hurricane Wilma.

"We've had a rough time," Edgemon said.

PRIDE officials know the biggest criticism leveled against the company - aside from the ITC problems - include complaints about why a company with access to nearly 90,000 inmates only employs 2,150 at a time and why inmates are sometimes learning skills for jobs that no longer exist in Florida.

Female inmates like Frazier who earn 20 to 55 cents an hour sewing uniforms for correctional officers, paramedics and other public safety officials inside the PRIDE sewing factory at Lowell Correctional Institution may be working for one of the only garment-manufacturers left in Florida.

"We know that the women who leave here probably won't get a job sewing, but if you have learned to work at the production level as they are learning to work here, then they can work in some other type of manufacturing," said Virginia Rose, who oversees the Lowell plant.

Edgemon and his staff said the number of inmate workers PRIDE employs is based on business levels.

"It's like saying an Alachua County firm needs to increase its workers based on the county's population instead of based on demand for the products a company produces," Edgemon said.

"We have actually worked about 3,500 inmates, but we have turnover because they are released or transferred to another prison and sometimes, although not very often, they get into trouble and we have to let them go," said Ronald E. McLane, PRIDE's vice president of operations.

Waiting lists

for programs

PRIDE programs have waiting lists of inmates who want to work for the businesses. The inmates fill out an application, are interviewed and serve probationary periods, all employment situations similar to those in the outside world.

According to the 2005 report of the National Correctional Industries Association, PRIDE employed 3.5 percent of Florida inmates, the fourth-highest number of inmates employed by a prison system. Florida recorded the most average work hours per inmate at 1,919 per year and second highest sales per inmate at $33,971 per year.

Although PRIDE only employees a small percentage of Florida's inmates, the non-profit claims a larger percentage of its former employees have gone on to succeed in the free world.

Over the past decade, PRIDE officials said an average of 85 percent of those who go through the company's placement program get jobs outside prison, including an 88 percent placement rate in 2005. Beginning this year, PRIDE is also tracking how long former inmates stay in the jobs they find upon leaving prison and so far the rate has been 96 percent, Edgemon said. The jobs former PRIDE inmate-employees take in the free world are permanent, full-time positions that pay an average of $11.30 an hour.

This year's goals and the goals for the next few years for PRIDE are focused on expanding existing businesses to create more jobs instead of launching new businesses.

"It's tough to launch a bomb-proof new business," said PRIDE's vice president of government relations, Foster Harbin. "It's easier to expand a successful existing business you already own. And, we can't afford failures like we have had (with ITC)."

Karen Voyles can be reached at 486-5058 or voylesk@gvillesun.com

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