Free to Work: Oklahoma Department of Corrections Company Rehabilitates Prisoners through Employment
Carter, M Scott, THE JOURNAL RECORD
Rhena Collins found her career the hard way.
Collins, a software specialist, had been married for 16 years. In 2001 she and her husband split. After that, things went downhill quickly.
"I guess you could say I fell into the wrong crowd," she said. "I was running around with the wrong people."
A year later, Collins was arrested and charged with manufacturing methamphetamines.
Not long after that, she went to prison.
"I served five-and-one-half years in prison at the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft," Collins said.
But unlike many inmates incarcerated in Oklahoma's correctional system, Collins - who has a natural head for business and technology - found a way to literally work her way out of prison.
Not long after being transferred from the Warrior to Hillside Community Corrections Center in Oklahoma City, Collins applied for and eventually landed a job with Oklahoma Correctional Industries.
At OCI, Collins became a part of a prison industry program that, she said, turned her life around.
"I was a tutor at Hillsdale when I learned of OCI," she said. "Eventually when I got up here, I heard they had an opening, and I applied for the job. I started barking at the door to try and get them to hire me."
Part of her reasoning was simple: OCI treated inmates better than other places.
"I wanted to work at OCI because I wanted to work in my field and because here it felt like coming to a regular job," she said.
A part of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections rehabilitation program, OCI functions as a free-standing company providing agricultural services, furniture and other equipment and services to state, county and municipal governments.
"We're in many areas," said OCI administrator J.D. Colbert. "But we won't do anything that offsets private sector jobs."
So far, the division-turned-company has been a success.
A hybrid, nonappropriated division of the DOC, OCI generates between $15 million and $20 million per year. The company's revenues pay for the entire cost of its operation, including salaries for a staff of 56, buildings, materials, vehicles and utilities.
"We pay our own way," Colbert said. "We don't have any other choice. We have to."
And they're not just making license plates.
"It's funny," Colbert said. "But when people think of prison industry programs, they just think of license plates. We do a whole lot more than license plates."
In fact, Colbert said OCI manufactures or provides more than 7,000 products and services to its customers and four other state correctional industry programs. And a majority of those products are made entirely by inmates. …