By Kathy Canavan
The 174 employees at DCI may have the shortest commute in the state. They could probably throw a football from their homes to their workplace, but they trek through three locked doors and four locked gates to clock in.
Bent over rows of white sewing machines, one crew turns out 100 pairs of men’s pants and 500 pairs of boxers in an average shift. The only hint that their workroom is not business-as-usual is the sign detailing the Delaware Prisoner Rape Elimination Act.
DCI stands for Delaware Correctional Industries, an enterprise that has produced everything from a sit-stand desk to a personalized bereavement urn in the shape of a golf bag. It operates inside the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, but any member of the public can order a personalized corn hole set, bring a tattered couch for new upholstery or have the cane seat on Grandma’s rocker replaced at bargain prices.
DCI is a business with $3.1 million in annual sales, but it is also a rehabilitation mission. Nineteen DCI employees finished their sentences and left Vaughn in the past three years, and none have landed back in jail. If they were not in the program, 12 out of 19 likely would have been back. The state prison system’s three-year recidivism rate is 65 percent.
While some inmates walk out of Vaughn with nothing but the “gate money” the state dispenses, DCI workers walk out with the business card and cell phone number for Mark Pariseau, who has run the program for three years.
Working about 60 hours a week, the former teacher said he doesn’t have time to follow all 19 ex-offenders from his watch, but he knows one is a certified mechanic, one is a boilermaker, three are upholsters and three work as welders.
He got a text from an ex-offender as he sat down to the dinner table at Thanksgiving: “Since we last met, I got a job, got married and bought a house.”
DCI teaches inmates skills that they can use on the outside –welding, printing, sewing, caning, upholstery, embroidery, silk screening, cement work, metal design, auto mechanics, glass cutting, picture framing, furniture restoration, computer-aided design, computerized wood carving and custom furniture building.
“You’ve got to teach a skill where the public will come to them. You can’t have a skill where they’re coming to your house, because then people are going to say, ‘Oh, you’re an ex-offender? Never mind.’ That’s going to change eventually, but for now … ” Pariseau said.
“I want these guys to learn something technical, because, when you get out after 40 years, you have to be current. I had one guy ask me, ‘What’s on Walkmans now?’ I said, ‘We don’t have Walkmans anymore. I have a little device that’s an inch square and it has 1,300 songs on it.”
DCI orders dipped after 18 inmates commandeered a housing unit for 20 hours last winter, taking a counselor and three correctional officers hostage and beating Lt. Steven Floyd Sr. to death.
“Since the incident, there has been a slight dropoff, maybe 10 to 15 percent, not a lot, but you still have that kind of a black eye.” Pariseau said. “Out of that incident, we all have grown and realized what we were not doing. It’s put your money where your mouth is. You want these guys to be responsible? Give them something to do. Teach them something they can use.”
“I consider my shop one of the most dangerous areas of the prison because we have the tools, yet we come out every day,” Pariseau said, adding that the correctional officers assigned to DCI treat the inmates as employees when they are on the job. “We always tell the guys we don’t want no issues. When you enter that door, you work for DCI,” he said.
Only 7 percent of inmates get to work there. To apply, they must have no write-ups for three years. If you arrive late three consecutive days without a good reason, you’re fired.
The starting salary is 25 cents an hour – more than most other prison jobs, Pariseau said. After a probationary period, they get a bump to 40 cents, then possible eight or 10 cent merit raises. “Yeah, we don’t pay them a whole lot,” he allowed, “but the skills they get are valuable. Believe it.”
Prisoners use lasers to create the large wooden state seals that grace office buildings. They make the cement markers that identify local veterans’ graves. One of their picture frames graces Gov. John Carney’s office. Several judges sit at their custom-made desks. Their polished wooden chairs seat visitors to some of the courthouses where they were convicted.
Pariseau encourages workers to come up with their own ideas for products too. When one inmate learned correctional officers were required to carry their lunches in clear plastic bags but the bags they bought tended to crack, he suggested DCI sew clear bags of superior material. Now many officers carry bags made in-house.
When Cpl. Stephen Ballard was shot and killed in Bear last year, some DCI workers created a large wooden photo plaque for the police officer’s family. “They did that. They came up with it,” Pariseau said. “It kind of surprised me. I thought it was kind of ironic. Whatever you think of them, they have a heart. I think it was very nice of them to do that.”
Pariseau said there’s not a lot of talk about “soft skills” in prisons, but the men at DCI learn to get to work on time, cooperate with each other and stay on task. Before they come, some don’t know what a measuring tape is. Some they don’t know how to identify an inch on a ruler.
Contrast that with a DCI worker trained as an upholsterer. When the man completed his sentence, a local minister let him set up shop in his church basement in exchange for volunteering with local teens. Pariseau said the ex-offender now owns two delivery vehicles and has “more business than he can share a stick at.”
One worker already has a diesel mechanic job lined up for when he’s released, but he has a dream. “When I go home, I will have my ASE certification. My end goal really is I’d like to become partners with this buddy I have on the street and open up our own shop,” he said.
The state pays for the ASE certification test for inmates training to be certified mechanics. As the time nears for an offender to get out of Vaughn, other inmates help him study for the test.
DCI’s mechanics shop charges $60 an hour – a fraction of costs at outside shops. It is so popular that inmates currently work only on state vehicles and Department of Correction employees’ vehicles on a space-available basis.
DCI sales contributed $3.1 million to its budget for 2017. Another $1.4 million came from the state general fund.
Two salespeople hawk DCI services to schools and government agencies and private businesses, but Pariseau said a former administration nixed direct advertising to avoid competition with private businesses in the state.
Pariseau, who wants to train more men as well-paid, in-demand welders, hopes to expand DCI’s line of custom-made fire pits and add customized landscaping trailers for Delaware’s growing number of landscapers.
One 53-year-old prisoner said DCI prepared him to leave custody in six months because he learned a work routine and is ready for freedom, but he said it’s really “a blessing” for younger men.
“The younger guys here who are from the streets are still going to be young when they get out,” he said.
“I want them to have skills so they don’t have to return to the street. People just need a shot.”
The Delaware Business Times decided to withhold the prisoners’ names because of the nature of their crimes as detailed by a Delaware Department of Correction spokesperson, to avoid revictimizing their victims.”