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Two Iowa Companies Turning To Incarcerated Individuals To Fill Job Openings

A store in Miami displays a "We are hiring" sign on March 5. Job gains are expected to have accelerated in March amid signs of an economic recovery.
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Iowa prison officials have signed off on plans for two private companies to hire incarcerated individuals to fill their job openings. Employers across the state say they're struggling to recruit enough workers.

Two businesses in Iowa are now turning to incarcerated individuals to help fill their job openings, at a time when employers across the state are struggling to hire enough workers amid the pandemic-related economic downturn. This month the Iowa Prison Industries advisory board approved two requests from private companies to hire inmates.

Under the plans signed off on by the IPI board during a meeting earlier this month, Diamond Crystal Brands and Timberline Manufacturing will be able to hire workers currently serving time at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville.

Diamond Crystal, an Atlanta-based processed food company, is seeking more warehouse workers for its Mitchellville location. Timberline Manufacturing, a Marion-based company that assembles electrical components, needs more employees to wire and test electrical harnesses, which can then be used in a variety of vehicles and machinery.

By law, corrections officials have to take steps to ensure that the prison contracts with private employers aren’t displacing civilian workers. Dan Clark, director of IPI, told the organization’s board he's checked with Iowa Workforce Development to ensure the companies qualify, and says that the businesses have been struggling to fill job openings, as are employers across the state.

“The company’s been suffering, as many companies are…to hire enough employees to support their business. Last I talked, they needed to hire more than 40 people,” Clark said in reference to Timberline.

Clark says the employers are already seeing the program as a way to create a recruitment pipeline, with the intent of rehiring the workers when they’re ultimately released from prison, with eastern Iowa-based Timberline taking a special interest in inmates hoping to relocate to the Cedar Rapids and Marion area.

“The company’s already pretty stoked because they’re looking at when these women get out. They’d be able to bring them right in. And the women would feel comfortable and the company would feel comfortable,” Clark told the IPI board. “So that’s really what we want. We want to help Iowa employers. But also we want to help women. And then when they get out, you know, land in a job quickly.”

Diamond Crystal has had a private sector work program with Iowa’s Department of Corrections in the past, Clark told the IPI board, which resulted in two employees being hired out of the prison industries program after they were released. One recently retired after working for the company for more than 20 years, Clark said, while the other is still employed there.

According to Clark, Diamond Crystal intends to hire about six inmates, who will be paid at least $11.79 an hour, though the company usually hires new workers at $16 an hour.

Timberline plans to hire about 12 people at a minimum of $10.93 an hour, though Clark said he expects the number of workers may increase to 16 or 20.

Under the plan, the Timberline employees would work inside the IPI shops located at the Mitchellville prison. The Diamond Crystal employees, who Clark says will be minimum security individuals who live in separate housing “outside the fence," would walk to work at the company’s warehouse two blocks from the prison.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter