Inmates making popular bay tags want a raise


Some of the House of Correction inmates making the state's best-selling Chesapeake Bay commemorative license tags say they deserve a raise for their craftsmanship.

And they say they are underpaid for manufacturing the more than 800,000 other tags Marylanders bolt to their bumpers annually.

"We would like to see a little bit more of the proceeds," said Eric W. Spence, a 30-year-old Baltimore man who said he was serving nine years for assault, in an interview last week at the state's tag shop inside the House of Correction compound in Jessup.

Walter Schwatka, a 28-year-old Towson man serving 15 years for cocaine distribution, said the cost of living inside prison has risen sharply recently -- particularly for cigarettes, the chief currency of the prison economy. The state recently raised the 13-cents-a-pack excise tax to 16 cents, and it made the purchase of cigarettes subject to the 5 percent sales tax.

Schwatka said he earns a base pay of $2.05 a day -- a dime less than the maximum -- and production bonuses that raise his monthly pay to about $80. (Inmates also receive a maximum of 10 days off their sentence for each month they work in the shop.)

The new plates so far have earned a $1.5 million profit for bay-related environmental activities, and several inmates said they support protecting the Chesapeake. But they said they need the money to send home to their families or to pay for such items as soap, toothpaste and telephone calls. Several said they would like to earn about $200 monthly.

"The biggest downside to the penal system is the 80 percent recidivism rate," Schwatka said. "But people don't realize that when you're released from prison you're given $25 and you're told, 'Go back into society and fend for yourself.' "

Spence said that rather than go for higher salaries, the profits from license plates might go back into the prison for drug rehabilitation and other inmate programs. "They're really lacking," he said. "It's really just warehousing here."

Larry Satterfield, plant manager of the tag shop, said he has requested a 10 percent to 20 percent pay increase for his workers. But no decision has been made, he said.

"A lot of them are good guys who took a wrong turn somewhere," Mr. Satterfield said. "A lot of them want to work. A lot of them want the ability to save a little money here to help their families."

He also pointed out, though, that his work force consists of "dope dealers, murderers and rapists." There are few Boy Scouts. "Some of them I wouldn't give you 10 cents for," he admits.

Mr. Satterfield said his workers generally behave themselves. But a fight broke out several weeks ago, he said, that led to one man having a finger amputated.

Since the Chesapeake tags, blue and green on white, were introduced in December, the state has sold 151,000 of them. They cost $20 in addition to the $27 annual registration fee for most passenger vehicles.

So far, the state has sold 51,000 more tags than it expected to sell over the two years the tags will be available.

Half the extra $20 goes to the Chesapeake Bay Trust, a quasi-governmental foundation that provides small grants to environmental groups.

The other half goes toward the added cost of producing the bay tag, which bears a decal depicting a great blue heron perched among swamp grasses and is made of 100 percent recycled aluminum. That aluminum, tag shop officials say, is much more expensive than the steel the state uses for its standard black-and-white tags.

The state has had to scramble to keep up with the demand. Mr. Satterfield said he recently needed a rush order of recycled aluminum and had to borrow some from a prison tag shop in West Virginia.

Tag shop jobs are among the most sought-after at the House of Correction. "We take pride in what we do," said Schwatka.

Donna Duncan of the American Correctional Association produced a report showing that 42 states and the District of Columbia use prison labor to manufacture plates. Many have been producing plates since shortly after the birth of the American auto industry.

The process is labor intensive. A continuous roll of either aluminum or 28-gauge galvanized steel is covered with a white decal of the Maryland logo; then 6-by-12-inch blanks are stamped out. The blanks are fed, one at a time, into a 200-ton press that embosses the numbers and letters.

The number-letter code for each plate is set by hand. A three-man team operating the press can turn out 1,000 tags in an hour.

Personalized tags are stamped in limited runs, and inmates can make only about 150 an hour.

Plates for motorcycles, state legislators, the governor and other statewide elected officials have their numbers stamped out on a press reserved for limited runs.

The embossed tags are run one at a time through an inking machine that colors the raised letters and numbers.

Then they are put on racks to dry, dipped in a plastic coating, dried again and packaged for shipping. At every stage the tags are counted, checked, sorted and stacked by hand. Because of the low wages, it costs the state only $1.31 to produce each tag.

Jeffrey A. Cole, a 26-year-old from Marion, Ohio, has been working in the shop since October and earns $1.55 a day. Outside prison, he worked as a welder and furniture maker.

"There's a whole lot of difference" working inside prison, he said. "Here, you've got to pull up some motivation from deep down inside. A lot of people in the shop might never see the street."

Mr. Satterfield conceded that none of his men are going to get jobs making license plates after their release. "But they learn safety first," he said. "They learn good work habits. They learn that if they don't work, they don't get paid."

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