Large custom oak wood-stained desks for public offices. Wide double-sided deep bookcases for public libraries. Long rectangular wood laminated tables for school cafeterias. These are just some of the hundreds of products incarcerated men and women are making in Nebraska.

Across the state, 500 women and men confined within prisons are manufacturing products and providing services across 15 shops for government offices and schools bound by a state law requiring public entities to buy from them. 

“Many Nebraskans may not know that people in our prisons are making license plates or cleaning the governor’s mansion for wages that are just a fraction of the minimum wage,” said Sam Petto, American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska Communications Director. 

According to the law, “all departments, institutions, and agencies of this state which are supported in whole or in part by taxation for state purposes and all counties and other political subdivisions of this state shall purchase from the Department of Correctional Services all articles required by them produced, printed, or manufactured by offenders confined in facilities of the Department of Correctional Services.” 

The program of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services (NDCS)that produces and manufactures these products is called Cornhuskers State Industries or CSI. 

According to CSI’s website, they provide products anywhere from tables, lounge furniture, outdoor tables, bookcases, beds and more. As for the markets they operate in, they range from K-12 schools, city government, courts, universities, parks and other government offices. CSI even produced hand sanitizer, masks and gowns at the height of COVID-19, that were distributed across the state. 

As shown by their Pinterest account, CSI has provided chairs for a University of Nebraska-Kearney dining hall, gym padding for Doniphan-Trumbull Public Schools, woodwork for Chadron State College locker rooms and more. 

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A screenshot from CSI’s Pinterest account showcasing chairs for the University of Nebraska-Kearney dining hall. Photo by Dulce Garcia/NNS.

CSIs vision is “to build opportunities for CSI  workers to achieve gainful employment upon release.” Incarcerated men and women with their experience working in the shop allow them to receive certifications for certain industries that can later be used to gain employment. 

Petto and the ACLU disagree. 

“It’s mostly a defense for cheap labor,” Petto said. “Any benefits that come with programs that pay workers as little as $1.21/day are far outweighed by the injustice of that system. And there are better options available, including work release and educational release programs.” 

Yet, one expert believes CSI isn’t as bad as it sounds.

Ryan Spohn is the director of the Nebraska Center for Justice Research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, which is a research center studying criminal justice issues and reform to reduce recidivism, improve correctional systems and overall improve public safety. 

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A set of school desks and chairs made by CSI in their show room. Purchasers of products can customize finishes. Photo by Dulce Garcia/NNS.

“My general take on it is that, as far as prison industry sort of stuff goes, it’s one of the better programs, I think, for the participants because they actually pay real wages,” Spohn said. “So, it’s not like a prison job, mopping floors for 25 cents an hour. It’s an actual hourly wage. It’s a real job. They learn real skills. They produce real things.

“If they knew the facts about Cornhusker State Industries versus other prison labor, I think most people would see it as a fairly positive thing.”

According to budget documents, Cornhusker State Industries made $11.4 million in revenues at the end of its 2022 fiscal year. However, expenses totaled $18.1 million, resulting in a $6.8 million loss. Department planners had predicted a small profit. 

In the previous fiscal year, CSI lost nearly $2.2 million. The year before that, it was $1.6 million.

Among the expenses is inmate labor, which totaled $789,147.96 in 2022. That was down slightly from the year before, where inmates earned $841,151.63.

Inmate labor accounts for about 4 percent of CSI’s expenses. 

The CSI website says almost 500 men and women working at one of the 15 shops across the state log 800,000 hours per year. The top rate for CSI workers is $1.08 per hour according to a press release from 2020. 

Joey Fleming, who spent 7 years in prison, started out making 62 cents an hour. And getting that job wasn’t easy. Fleming said inmates have to start with 18 months without any write-ups, not having any institutional violence, and having a clean conduct record. After that, they go through an interview process.

Fleming said CSI starts workers in stages. Workers start out as laborers, and as they get certified on equipment and gain experience, they can move up. They can get more complex jobs and later become leaders on products, like custom-made desks.

“The program is weird because you’re doing all this work, and this is work that people on the street would end up making $40 to $45 an hour or even more because it’s custom work. But, you know, you kind of just got to accept the fact that they’re allowing you to have a job, they’re giving you a productive way to do your time and not have to be in a cell all day,” Fleming said. “You know, it’s an opportunity, but it’s an opportunity that comes with a little bit of sacrifice.”

The Nebraska News Service surveyed 14 current and former CSI employees. 

A majority of those surveyed reported they had fairly positive experiences working at CSI, noting the ability for them to be able to stay busy. 

About half said they felt they were given opportunities to gain more education and receive certifications in skills such as operating a forklift and working with a dye press. 

Seven stated they considered the working safe, three said it was safe but needed improvement and three answered they didn’t believe working conditions were safe and mentioned the need for OSHA oversight. 

Yet, all 14 survey respondents could agree on one single thing: CSI needs to pay their incarcerated workers more. 

Slave wages is what 53-year-old Dwanye Greer called the pay he received at CSI. 

“It’s not nearly enough pay for what we made for the prison,” Greer said. “My time was okay, but there should be better pay for inmates who are getting pennies while the prison is making millions off their backs.”

There is an effort to improve the pay incarcerated workers at CSI receive. 

State Sen. Terrell McKinney of Omaha introduced LB 163 on Jan. 9, which ordered the Nebraska Department of Corrections “to raise the pay for incarcerated individuals in state facilities to the state minimum wage in NDCS, Cornhusker State Industries, and any other authorized employer.”

There hasn’t been any movement on the bill since late January.  

When Fleming was released, he was making $1.02 an hour. 

Yet, for him, his time at CSI wasn’t about the money. Instead, it was about the skills he gained. 

“They’re going to provide us with the tools we need to succeed in society,” Fleming said. “But whether we use them or not, is entirely on us. With the tools I got there, I’m in the maintenance industry. I’m a maintenance technician at a vegan food plant here in Nebraska City. Because of the abilities that I learned in the penitentiary, you know, I make $25 an hour. 

“This is what’s keeping me out of prison. I don’t have to worry about trying to figure out where my son’s next meal is coming from, or keeping a roof over his head because I have a stable career.”