As machines thud and clank in the background, Melvin Powell quietly sprays large metal rectangles -- the brackets for electrical switches -- with a plume of gray paint. Minutes later, he inspects his work as it emerges with a glossy finish from an oven burning at 400 degrees.
"I think they look pretty good," says Powell, his face partly hidden behind a mask and his hands covered with gray paint. "Maybe when I get out, I can get a job with this company."
Powell, 49, isn't an average employee. Serving a 30-year sentence for murder in the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown, he works for minimum wage behind prison walls for Powercon, a Severn company that builds electrical switches for power stations.
Powell offers a glimpse into the future of prison labor, say Maryland officials, who are inviting more companies to tap the huge labor supply inside state prisons.
Already, prisoners in Hagerstown paint Powercon's switch equipment and repair furniture for another company, Furniture Medic of Rockville, on an as-needed basis. At a Jessup prison, inmates inspect perfume bottles for a Baltimore glass-maker.
Buoyed by the success of that undertaking, which involves about 30 inmates, state prison officials are intensifying their corporate recruitment, moving prison labor beyond such traditional jobs as making license plates and furniture. Two more projects, involving hand-sewn dolls and wood flooring, should begin soon. And corrections officials say they will entertain corporate requests for almost any kind of help -- from sign-painting to data entry.
In the past year, they have begun to market the program through brochures -- with the slogan "A resource for the private sector" -- and ads on the Division of Correction's Web site. They also plan to hire a manager to lead the expansion, appealing to businesses that have trouble finding workers amid a tight labor market.
"We have most of the traditional prison industries now," said Steve Shiloh, who oversees the prison labor program in Maryland. "This is the next avenue to gain significant inmate employment."
Besides giving inmates new skills for the "outside," prison officials say they also benefit every time a convict gets a job -- better security "inside."
"Show me an inmate watching television all day, and I'll show you a dangerous inmate," says Leonard A. Sipes Jr., spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
Maryland is just catching on to the prison-industry partnerships, which began in 1979 with a federal law authorizing the practice. Such programs have seen a 200 percent increase in jobs nationwide since the early 1990s, and now approximately 2,500 inmates work for companies, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
In California, inmates manufacture computer chips. In Utah, they work as telemarketers.
Near Las Vegas, inmates at a medium-security prison rebuild vintage automobiles for the Imperial Palace Hotel and Casino. Recently, they worked on a 1941 Mercedes used in the "Hogan's Heroes" television show. The car is worth more than $12 million, said Dave Hoshaw, supervisor of the work crew.
Hoshaw and several other corporate managers say prisoners make good employees, despite their criminal records. Only the best-behaved are chosen for corporate work, and they usually work hard to keep their jobs, which pay better than traditional prison labor.
"There are a lot of con artists, murderers, sex offenders and bank robbers in here," Hoshaw says. "But they respect the cars, respect the bosses. You would never know this shop from an outside one."
Some employers ambivalent
Maryland businesses don't always express that same enthusiasm. Hinting at the program's future for his company, an official with Baltimore's Carr-Lowrey Glass Co. says it is re-evaluating the program as part of an unrelated business overhaul.
And Ralph Siegel, Powercon's president, says the decision to hire inmates in Hagerstown wasn't an altruistic one. "We couldn't find anybody else to do it," he says.
But the owner of the Rockville franchise of Furniture Medic says inmates surprised him by deftly handling an order for for several hundred chairs last February.
"It was a long shot, but we tried it. The pricing and quality was there," says owner Michael O'Dea, who would consider using inmates again. "We were actually glad to see the state doing something [other] than just having [prisoners] sit idle."
The vast majority of Maryland's 22,600 inmates perform some kind of work -- they sweep floors, prepare food and clean roads, and earn from $1 to $2.25 a day.
About 1,300 of those inmates labor for State Use Industries, which produces dozens of items, ranging from office furniture to packed beef to American flags, but sells only to non-profit groups and government agencies. Those prisoners earn about $110 a month.
Corporate contracts under the newer program hold the promise of new skills and bigger paychecks for inmates -- about $300 a month after officials deduct money for victims' funds, taxes and room and board.
Critics say the program could lead to exploitation of inmates and could affect job prospects for law-abiding citizens.
"It gives companies an unfair advantage," says Roger Newell, a spokesman for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. "They don't have to pay competitive salaries or offer benefits. I mean, where can inmates go on vacation? Two glorious weeks in the yard."
Last resort work force
Prison officials and business leaders downplay the tension between labor unions and inmate labor. They note that inmates must be paid the prevailing local wage, and at least the minimum wage. They also must notify local businesses and unions about planned projects.
Prison officials say they have heard no criticism about the Hagerstown or Jessup efforts, and would reconsider any plans if local labor or businesses complained.
Still, they say, justifying the use of inmate labor to customers might not be worth the risk for some companies.
Carr-Lowrey, for example, threatened to pull out of the program if its role was publicized, fearing it might lose potential customers, prison officials say; and Siegel of Powercon sent The Sun a one-page letter explaining that he entered the program as a "last resort."
"It has become almost impossible to attract and hire qualified people," the letter says.
Prison is a "last resort" for many inmates, too, who hardly make ideal employees. They must be closely supervised, and corrections officers must constantly count inmates and keep track of tools -- often wasting production time.
In the glass-inspection shop at the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup, inmates are working for the same reasons that inmates have been making license plates for years -- to earn money and keep busy.
Squinting through thick eyeglasses, James Brown turned a perfume bottle under a bright light and looked for cracks, chinks and imperfections.
He placed the flawless bottle in a box, then lifted another with his gloved hand from a stream of glass flowing down the assembly line.
"It gives you something to do," said Brown, who is serving a 30-year sentence for a 1979 murder. "It helps your family out. My family doesn't have to take care of me."
At the Hagerstown metal shop, convicted murderers Daniel Hendricks and Charles McCoy, who are serving life sentences, are working for Powercon and banking on optimism -- saving money for an uncertain release.
But mostly, the inmates use the routine labor to fill days that seem like reruns.
"If I ain't working, I've got nothing to do except sit around all day," says McCoy, 38, who was convicted of a Howard County murder in 1981. "This keeps the days passing by."