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Iowa Company Plans To Hire Prisoners While They're Still In Prison

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A plastics manufacturer in southeast Iowa says the local community can't meet its workforce needs. So the company has decided to turn to inmates at the local prison.

A southeast Iowa business that’s facing a labor shortage plans to hire workers from the nearby state prison. Inmates serving time at the Mt. Pleasant Correctional Facility would work alongside other employees at the company's factory.

With unemployment in Henry County at 2.4 percent, Lomont Molding, LLC in Mount Pleasant has been struggling to find qualified, motivated workers. Communications Director Carl Frank says the plastic manufacturing company has tried relying on temp agencies and offers competitive pay and benefits. 

“There’s just not enough people who are left to work," Frank said. "You have difficulty finding people who really want to keep a job.”

The persistantly low unemployment has spurred the company to rethink its hiring approach and consider other options, including hiring inmates under the Prison Industry Enhancement program, or PIE. Frank says they hope to have 10 to 15 inmates on staff next month, pending some logistical details.

An initiative of the federal government, the program enables qualified inmates to work outside of prison while they're serving time. The company will bus them back and forth and pay them wages comparable to their coworkers, with input from state officials and labor groups on setting their pay.

While prisoners in the PIE program are paid competitively, they don't have much say in how they spend their wages. Twenty percent goes to their own account, while the rest can be automatically deducted for restitution, fees, child support, taxes, room and board costs, and in some cases directed back into the Iowa General Fund or Department of Corrections coffers. 

Frank concedes some in the community are skeptical of the plan. West Liberty Foods, also in Mount Pleasant, recieved approval to start a PIE program but ultimately decided against it, despite its own workforce shortages. While other private companies across Iowa have enrolled, he says Lomont Molding would be the first in the area to do so.

“I guess we’re kind of a little bit on the guinea pig side," Clark said. "There is a little bit of trepidation on our part, but we feel fairly comfortable that we’ve set things up right and that it’s going to go forward and it’s going to be very successful for us.”