Inmates provide reliable work for low cost

IOWA STATE UNIVERSITY — Inmates with the Iowa Prison Industries returned to campus this summer to work on projects in the residence halls.

The inmates are from low-security prisons and were originally hired by Iowa State two years ago to construct and move furniture into Maple Hall.

This summer, inmates are working on other projects, such as moving furniture into Hawthorn Court and removing old furniture from Wilson Hall.

Furniture from several companies was put on display and students chose the furniture made by Iowa Prison Industries as No. 1, said Randy Alexander, director of housing and food service.

“We brought in furniture from six or seven companies, set it all up over in Wallace-Wilson commons in the large conference room and we had students go through with an evaluation form they could fill out to pick what they liked,” he said.

Maintenance staff also evaluated the furniture for durability, and also chose the furniture constructed by the Iowa Prison Industries workers, Alexander said.

Bids were still sent out to other companies, Alexander said, and the Iowa Prison Industries eventually won the contract.

This summer, inmates will also be cleaning carpets in the residence halls and cleaning sand coil heating and air conditioning units, Alexander said.

Alexander said using Iowa Prison Industries benefits Iowa State because the university saves money by not having to place people on payroll year round.

“The work that we’re hiring them to do is not something that we’d hire a contractor to do,” Alexander said. “Moving furniture is just manual labor. It doesn’t require a great skill.”

Alexander said there are advantages to using the prisoners, such as their availability and flexibility.

“They’re there when they say they’ll be there, they’re on time, and we can [use] any number we want,” he said. “It is a very reliable, predictable and economical resource.”

The university has used temporary workers in the past, but Alexander said they were not as reliable.

“Go out and try to hire 20 people to move furniture for two days and see what you get,” he said. “You just don’t find people sitting around who are available to come do a job for a week or two.”

Alexander added the university has explored other options and found this to work the best.

“We’ve hired from temp pools before and … it requires more work on our part to manage [them],” he said.

Iowa Prison Industries allows inmates to gain skills while they are incarcerated, he said.

Inmates who work for Iowa Prison Industries are always supervised and generally work in unoccupied buildings, he said.

Heather Phillips, director of Maple Hall, was in the building when the inmates delivered the furniture.

Phillips said the inmates have worked in Maple Hall once this summer, and will return before the fall semester.

The beds need to be lowered and lofted again for summer conference participants, she said.

Phillips said many students are unaware of the work the inmates do in the dorms, but she has never heard negative reactions from students about the inmates working in the building.

The inmates are considered low-risk and are serving time for minor crimes in a low-security prison.

Phillips also said she thinks there are benefits to hiring the inmates.

“These are non-violent people,” she said. “They’re kind of the role models of the prison system. I think it’s positive to give inmates work to do.”

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