[caps]M[/caps]en move about the workshop, many covered in tattoos and all sporting blue denim jeans and light blue work shirts. “Inmate” is printed in large orange stencil on their clothes. Wood chips and chemical spray float in the air, and the sun seeps in through the windows. The sounds of band-saws, planers, routers and heavy machinery make conversation difficult. A couple of officers linger in the corner, watchful, but staying out of the way. No man stands idle; all are hard at work, preparing to start on furniture for the state hospital.
The men building the furniture are all prisoners at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem.
The state hospital is not the first state institution to employ Oregon Corrections Enterprises (OCE), a semi-independent state agency that works to rehabilitate inmates by providing them with a skill set that will help them secure employment after prison. According to William Lorsung, an inmate employed by OCE, the program provides men with an opportunity to hit the ground running upon their release.
Many state institutions support OCE, including the University of Oregon. The prisoners are contracted to manufacture the beds and desks in the university’s dorms, unbeknownst to most freshmen.
“I had the opportunity to work with the University of Oregon and Oregon State University to contribute a lot of different projects, and it’s neat,” says Lorsung. “My first year in ’99, when I first came in, we were doing the first dorm remodel. We made 269 beds and wardrobes and chairs. It was like a brand new opportunity, like a diversion program.”
According to the OCE website, approximately 1,140 inmates work for OCE. More than ninety-five percent of these individuals will eventually be released. The workshop, located within the walls of the prison but separated from the general population, is overseen by civilian supervisors. Supervisor Michael Kezeor says it teaches the inmates life skills. “A lot of these guys have never had a job… It teaches them they need to get up in the morning, they need to go to breakfast on time, [and] they need to go to work on time. The regular values that I guess everybody on the outside has,” Kezeor says.
According to its website, OCE not only provides life skills but also strives to help inmates build a strong work ethic and change their outlook on life. “What a man needs when he has been in here any amount of time is a second opportunity to reintegrate into society,” says Lorsung. For him, and for many other inmates, OCE provides them with that exact opportunity.