After uncertainty and internal turmoil, inmate job-training program thrives

California’s Prison Industry Authority, once targeted for elimination by the Schwarzenegger administration, has moved through a bureaucratic minefield and survived – even though a majority of the appointments on the 11-member PIA board has lapsed.

The $200 million-a-year PIA is one of state government’s most unusual programs. It trains 6,000 inmates annually in carpentry, meat packing, farming, optics, furniture-making, basic education, baking, iron working and construction, among other skills. The program–it even provides license plates–is supported by the products it sells. By law, its principal customer is government, and it’s self-sufficient.

PIA operates some 60 factories and production sites at nearly two dozen prisons. The recidivism rate of PIA-trained inmates is 25 percent less than other inmates, according to the correctional staff’s own figures.

“It’s working because we’ve got the right mix of managers at the PIA and the right mix of board members–they actually come together. We’re doing what we’ve always tried to do, which is give these guys (inmates) an occupation and have them do something other than the things they did that got them here in the first place,” said board member Curtis Kelly, a regional northern manager of the Northern California Carpenters.

Recently retired state corrections director Jim Tilton was a supporter of the PIA in the fierce corrections bureaucracy, as is Mat Cate, the new prisons director, according to insiders. The head of corrections is automatically a member of the PIA governing board. Having the state’s top corrections official in the PIA’s corner helps assure the PIA board’s survival.

But six of the board’s 11 appointments have expired. The positions are not vacant – they are filled by the earlier appointees – so the board can muster a quorum and make decisions. The fact that the positions have lapsed has raised concerns within the correctional bureaucracy.

In the California Performance Review, the Schwarzenegger administration’s top-to-bottom look at the state government, there was a recommendation to essentially eliminate the PIA board and fold the PIA staff and operations into the larger corrections staff. The administration supported a bill by Los Angeles Democratic Sen. Gloria Romero, SB 737, to do just that, but the language was removed from the bill after a number of PIA supporters complained.

The February 2005  legislation effectively would have limited the PIA’s contracting ability and eliminated the board’s authority. In part the legislation sprang from a differences between the PIA and the Department of General Services, the state’s main contracting agency. There were other stresses as well—PIA executive director Matthew Powers stepped down, and the board had difficulty making meetings. At least once, in January 2007, a meeting was canceled.

In the background has lurked the federally appointed administrator charged with fixing the prison system’s inmate medical care programs, and the threat that the entire system could be place under federal receivership.

But for Kelly, who enjoys the challenges of working with the prison program, the strains of the bureaucratic struggles have had little impact on the PIA’s job, which is defined by the personal commitments of the directors and staff.

“It’s the hardest, most frustrating job that I have that I do for free,” Kelly noted.

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