In John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath, Tom Joad comes home with a shiny suit and new shoes with calluses on his hands, but no other skills to enter the workforce.
Thanks to people like Pam Nees, that image is no longer the rule but the exception.
As private sector liaison at the state minimum security prison in Rockwell City, it's Nees' job to place inmates who are ready to transition into the community through the prison work release program. Nees has received accolades for her efforts. A 20-year employee of the State of Iowa, she was named Iowa Department of Human Services Employee of the Year for 2005.
Nees told Hy-Noon Kiwanians about the program at one of the group's recent meetings at the Knights of Columbus Hall.
Nees said the work release program, in which inmates are allowed to work outside the prison during the day and return to the prison at night, started with 12 inmates. The program has since grown to 300 inmates that are allowed to work in either nonprofit or private-sector jobs.
Upon first entering the state penal system, inmates are classified at Oakdale then again at Rockwell City. Those in levels two through five can at some time be considered for the work release program, with those at level five considered most ready to enter the workforce.
Locally, the City of Lakeside benefitted from the program. "I am the person that put those gentlemen in the orange shirts there," Nees said.
No one serving a life or sexual offense is eligible for the program, Nees said. "What I put out in the community might be my neighbor or your neighbor pretty soon," Nees said.
Don't expect the inmates to get rich very quickly though, Nees said. The inmates working at Lakeside, for example, earned 47 cents an hour. Of course, that's better than the alternative.
Many of the inmates are placed at places such as Misty Harbor or Jetco at Fort Dodge. This fall, cooperatives in 45 locations will have inmates as employees. "It is a growing business just because people have a hard time filling the jobs," Nees said.
Nonprofits that want inmate labor must first fill out a 28-E agreement. The laborers must be trained on any equipment they will be using. Most agencies that use inmate labor provide transportation, Nees said. The inmates are ready to work day or night. "You could pretty well say we're a 24-hour-a-day operation," Nees said.
Starting October, some of the worker-inmates will go to Ames to work at the State Forestry Nursery. Others have ranged as far as Marshalltown and Adel.
Nees said the state prison in Newton also participates in a similar program, with 100 inmates currently placed in jobs. She said private-sector jobs pay substantially more, up to $10 or more in some cases. In those jobs, inmates get to keep 20 percent of their earnings. "Private-sector jobs, they all want those," Nees said. Many of the inmate-workers become permanent employees.