Despite successes, inmate job-training program under fire

In California’s troubled penal system, there are few bright spots. But the Prison Industry Authority may be one: The $200-million-a-year program trains some 6,000 who inmates do everything from grinding eyeglass lenses to milking cows to making license plates. It is self-sufficient, nearly autonomous and doesn’t even the cost the state a dime. By the yardstick of government effectiveness, especially in the correctional world, it is a success.

So why does everyone from the state legislative analyst to business owners to the Department of General Services want to dismantle the PIA?

Officials at DGS have been critical of the program for poaching on its contracting and procurement turf. Those in business are concerned that PIA may spread its reach into public areas that contract heavily for private goods and services, thus undercutting the role of private companies.

Meanwhile, the PIA’s internal politics are uncertain. Its general manager, Matthew Powers, resigned this week, and the governor has allowed four other seats on the board to go without reappointment. The board failed to muster a quorum for last month’s meeting.

Privately, the federal, court-appointed administrator of the correctional health-care system has lauded the PIA. And former and current ranking corrections officials–including some key prison critics–believe it is an example of California’s beleaguered correctional system finally living up to its vow, however limited, to rehabilitate inmates. “PIA does a wonderful job. They are training inmates to have a work ethic. They make furniture, they learn how to use computers. They learn skills that can be used on the outside,” said Jeanne Woodford, former head of California’s prison system and the former superintendent of San Quentin.

Jim Tilton, California’s top prison official and head of the PIA board, agrees. “It is one of the bright spots for me because PIA is outside the [state] budget and self-supporting,” he said.

“There has always been that pushback,” he added, referring to the concerns of private enterprise. “Sometimes it’s that the prices are too high, sometimes it’s that there is the discussion that you are taking away jobs from private citizens. There is always that conflict.”

In the public discussion over California’s prisons, the relatively obscure PIA–which has been dinged by critics for its high prices and exploitation of a captive market–has drawn little attention. That may change.

“I really think that few people know much about it because our prison system is in such a state of crisis, and out of 173,000 inmates it is lost in the myriad of crises,” said Rose Braz, director of the inmate-rights group Critical Resistance. “If this is the only source of job training, or one of the sources, it seems to me that a lot more than 6,000 people need that training, and the support once they get out.”

But the politics surrounding the PIA are murky.

Legislative Analyst Elizabeth Hill in December recommended turning the PIA into a private, nonprofit, tax-exempt company that would compete in the open market with other firms. Hill’s findings carry weight in the Capitol, but state corrections experts and others were critical of the recommendation. They said it echoed nearly word-for-word a decade-old LAO study that was compiled before major changes were made during the past few years, and that it failed to focus sufficiently on rehabilitation.

Some in private industry say the state-protected entity can tap cheap prison labor to provide services to the sprawling government–elbowing out private companies and jobs. Within the administration, former cabinet secretary Fred Aguiar was among PIA’s sharpest critics. (Ironically, at a briefing denouncing the PIA, Aguiar used props made by PIA labor–a buzz that soon circulated through the Capitol.)

The PIA also needs to adopt different priorities, said lobbyist Mark Nobili, whose clients include Harvest Farms in Lancaster, a major provider of food supplies to state prisons. “[The PIA] shouldn’t be doing what they are doing now, which is to say, ‘What does the state already buy that I can make cheaper with inmate labor and then sell to the state?’ What they should do is make a set of criteria and say, ‘What is it that will best teach a marketable skill to an inmate?’ It shouldn’t be to make something cheaper and then force the state to buy it.

“The real fear about them is that they are going to get into other industries,” Nobili added. “If the PIA wanted to start selling to schools, for example, it would really freak [private businesses] out.”

The Schwarzenegger administration has let four positions on the PIA’s 11-member board lapse without reappointment, although those members retain voting rights until they are replaced. Powers resigned this week in order to go into private industry in Roseville. The governor doesn’t have the authority to appoint Powers’ successor, but he can appoint the board members who help choose Powers’ successor, and there is a behind-the-scenes dispute over that appointment. The board’s long-scheduled January 26 meeting in Sacramento, meanwhile, was canceled because not enough members showed up.

The PIA, under the statute that created it nearly 25 years ago as an overhaul of an earlier program, is an oddity in state government. It does its own procurement and can make alliances with private entities, such as its first-in-the-nation program to train carpenters. It provides goods to government agencies–it can’t sell to the general public, by law. The DGS and the PIA have been at odds for years over PIA’s procurement practices, which the DGS contends violate state policy. PIA, in response, cites legislative-intent legal opinions to bolster its position.

Moreover, within corrections there is unhappiness with the speed of DGS procurement. In one incident, officials said the state nearly was unable to manufacture enough license plates because DGS-procured materials were slow in coming.

PIA operates some 60 factories and production sites at nearly two dozen prisons. They include printing, dairies, reading glasses for the Medi-Cal program, shoes, a knitting mill, silk-screening, laundries, furniture, metal signs, bedding, modular building construction (which partners with carpenters’ Local 46), poultry and egg production, digital services, coffee roasting, crops and a dental lab, among others.

Charles Pattillo, Powers’ top aide and a former legislative chief of staff and investigator, is serving as the PIA’s acting chief executive. While in the Legislature, Pattillo served at the Joint Legislative Audit Committee and coordinated the probe into the decision of former Gov. Gray Davis’ administration to approve a flawed, $100 million software contract with Oracle–an aggressive role that won him few friends among Davis’ executive staff, including some who now work for Schwarzenegger. Administration officials declined to publicly discuss the board appointments. Privately, a Capitol source familiar with the issue said there were unlikely to be changes in the board makeup in the near future, but that Pattillo’s role was less certain.

“It’s one of the few things that [prison authorities] can point to that works,” Woodford said. “There are some bright spots in the prison system, but they are small. You want to see them grow.”

Contact John Howard at

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