Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article reported that TCF inmate/workers are paid 60 cents an hour. That was incorrect. That is the amount they are paid for in-house labor at the Topeka Correctional Facility. TCF inmates earn $14 an hour while working at Russell Stover of Iola. The article in both print and digital formats has been corrected.
“When we get to work we are no longer inmates. We are Russell Stover employees.”
So said Jan Vicory and Lisa Pereira, two of the 150 female inmates from the Topeka Correctional Facility (TCF) who are traveling by bus to work nights at facilities in Iola and Abilene.
Incarcerated workers like Vicory and Pereira are paid $14 per hour, and perform tasks ranging from maintenance to machine operation.
“The experience that it’s giving us is pretty priceless to me,” said Pereira.
Vicory agreed, adding that “we already are becoming functioning members of society again. We’re becoming red, white and blue people.”
“It’s not just a job when you’ve been stripped of everything.”
According to Vicory, “one day we were just here, having COVID, and the next we were getting ready to go to work. It happened in a short period of time.”
“We got an email and next week we were working. We were all super excited.”
As for what a TCF inmate’s night at the factory consists of, Pereira explained how “we have to be ready to get on the bus at 1:15 in the afternoon.”
After an almost two-hour bus ride, often fraught with car-sickness, the inmate-laborers settle in for a regular eight-hour shift where they are treated essentially the same as everyone else.
Along these lines, Vicory noted that “the cool thing about Russell Stover is they don’t designate between prison and non-prison. When you come in, bam, you’re in that job.”
“We are everyday regular chicks in there,” she said.
Inmates then shuffle back onto the bus around 12:30 a.m. and are back in Topeka by 2:30 a.m.
“We lack a lot of sleep,” Pereira said of the work-cycle.
GETTING back into a regular work schedule isn’t easy, either.
“I had been locked up … almost five years,” said Pereira. “My social skills, my interaction with people. I was really nervous about that.”
After a couple months in the program, however, “it’s the best part of my day. I’m relearning to interact with people on a normal basis,” she said.
Pereira also talked about how the job demanded that she learn how to manage her time better.
Along similar lines, Vicory spoke about overcoming stigmas, and getting folks to see those from the prison as regular people.
“During that first couple of weeks, it was about getting that humanity back,” she said. “Getting into the grand swing of humanity.”
It didn’t take long, however, before those from TCF were engaged in what Vicory called typical “ball-busting, back-breaking factory work,” and had been accepted as part of the team.
“We’re the first group of this kind for the women’s prison, ever,” she said. “So we set the bar for ourselves really high.”
THOSE participating in the Russell Stover/TCF program likewise have the option of staying on after their release.
“That option is game-changing and life-changing,” Vicory exclaimed.
And indeed, both she and Pereira are planning to accept the offer.
“There’s no other plan but to continue on and make the candy,” Vicory said.
Pereira also added that she was appreciative of what the guaranteed job would mean for her as a mother.
“Women especially, we are care-givers. Most of us have children. We have children that we’re going to go right out to, that we’ve watched grow up in here,” she said.
“As soon as I get out, I’m a full-time mom again.”
THE ETHICS of prison labor are fraught with controversy, with many both denouncing and venerating the practice.
When asked whether they thought the arrangement was fair themselves, Vicory and Pereira argued in support.
“When you’re incarcerated, you’re probably incarcerated for messing up,” Vicory said.
“Being trained to do what’s right, how can that not be fair, how can that not be just?”
And Pereira added: “there has to be an incentive for companies to employ people that are incarcerated, so if that means paying a little bit less, that’s OK with me.”
“I think it’s fair. I think it’s absolutely fair,” she said.
OTHER enthusiastic defenders of the practice of employing incarcerated people include warden Gloria Geither and public affairs director Randy Bowman of the Topeka Correctional Facility.
According to Bowman, Russell Stover is the 42nd company that TCF has partnered with, some for nearly three decades.
“We just need to grow these opportunities,” he said.
“At the end of the day, we’d love to offer that to many more residents, both for the Topeka facility, our seven male facilities and our one facility for children here in Kansas.”
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for the women,” added Geither, as well as an opportunity for TCF to pilot its first off-site work program.
“The biggest thing with the program is that it’s given the women hope, hope they’re never seen before,” she said.
“And it gives them so much more of a chance of staying out [of prison], and lowering recidivism when they get out.”
BOWMAN and Geither likewise point to the impact that such programs have on local communities, such as improving public safety.
“We’re creating an opportunity that benefits every single one of us in society,” he said. “If they use their time constructively, they’re going to come out and be good neighbors.”
“We’re going to make our communities safer through these projects,” he added, “and that’s what we hope the communities come to understand.”