The workday starts at 1:15 p.m. with everyone getting her lunches ready and uniforms on before getting on the bus. Like any commute, the workers felt like it went on forever and for some motion sickness due to not riding in a vehicle for years.
Once at the Russell Stover’s factory in Iola, the workers split up to their work areas and machines. Soon eight hours of humming machines and smell of candy & sweat ends, the group returns to the bus covered in day’s work at 12:30 a.m. They arrive back home around 2:30 a.m. ready to find their bed and sleep until work the next day.
The workday became a brand new element for Jan Vicory and Lisa Pereira, two women inmates selected to Russell Stover’s new prison work program.
Worried over Covid-19 and their impending release dates, both Vicory and Pereira couldn’t believe their luck on a Friday afternoon at the end of April.
“We one day got an email and the next week we’re working so it just all happened so quickly that we were all super excited and we’re working & trying to catch our breath because it just happened so quickly,” Pereira said.
“We were gainfully employed with Russell Stover, so this whole really crazy process so fast, but it was just such an indescribable experience,” Vicory said.
At the factory, Vicory works in the kitchen at the Mogul machine, which helps shape the marshmallow and caramel for candy. Proudly speaking about working one of the only two Mogul machines, Vicory described her care of the machine and her surprise at the beginning.
“It’s like taken apart a 56 Chevy, if I have to take it apart,” Vicory said.
“I really expected it to be a whole weirdo situation or that we’d be cleaning the bathrooms or something. Like, I didn’t expect that we were going to just come in there and be employees,” Vicory continued.
With the other group of inmates, Pereira works as a machine operator, which means running between three machines that focus on making chocolate candies. Pereira finds her workday to be universally similar to her non-incarcerated coworkers.
“I think it’s just like when everybody else goes to work and doesn’t have any time for anything,” Pereira said. “That’s kind of my day.”
While the days may be filled with work, both Vicory and Pereira spoke about the blessing of the work experience they gain every day.
“The amount of like preparation that it’s giving us an experience is pretty priceless to me,” Pereira said.
“When we get to work, we’re no longer inmates, we are Russell Stovers employees and we’ve all acted according to that and follow the lead of our co-workers to figure out the grand scheme of things there,” Vicory said.
Before joining the Russell Stover work program, neither Vicory nor Pereira worked a prison labor job or studied in a job training programs. So, with years spent behind bars, they dealt and are dealing with some hurdles of their new environment.
One of the biggest hurdles, they faced came with socially interacting with their co-workers who aren’t living in the prison with them.
“So, the fact that we are interacting with regular people that are going to work, we’re able to have that experience with people,” Pereira said. “For me, it’s the best part of my day, as I am relearning how to interact on a normal basis with people and in a job, which is a super huge for me.”
“We may not like the guy next to me, but if there’s a problem, we are a team here and so that getting back into the grand swing of humanity & how we’re different,” Vicory said.
What does the job mean to you?
“Women, especially, we are caregivers, most of us, we have children that we’ve watch grow up in here and maybe it’s other people taking care of our children while we’re out,” Pereira said. “But, as I get out, I’m a full time mom again and the fact that I’m going to be able to do that with more than $100 in my pocket, the ability to have money saved, a job to go to and a house, a roof to put over my kid’s head. It’s overwhelming, it’s just something I just don’t even know how to explain and it’s not something that anybody could understand.”
“So, it means everything to me to be able to do this, absolutely everything,” Pereira continued tearing up.
“When you’re first sentenced to prison, it’s this whole stripping down of everything that you know, whether that is good or bad,” Vicory said. “Then you get this opportunity handed to you on like this gift platter after working hard in this prison and not receiving DRS [discipline reports] and kicking butt & taking names, you’re handed this opportunity.”
“In the grand scheme of all of it, we already becoming functioning members of society, again, behind bars,” Vicory continued tearing up. “We’re paying out taxes, we’re becoming red, white and blue people again.”
After the date
With the new job in prison, the 150 chosen inmates will have a job waiting for them after their release date if they choose to take it.
Vicory plans on staying with Russell Stovers and her family plans to come live with her in Iola.
“This is just crazy, crazy and it’s amazing job,” Vicory said. “The factory work is ball busting, back breaking, but it feels good every single day.”
Originally from Pacific Northwest, Pereira still plans to stay in Iola soon with her family and continue to work for Russell Stover making candy.
The administrative side
Warden Gloria Gaither and Executive Director of Public Affairs Randy Bowman sat down with Abilene Reflector-Chronicle to explain the technical side of the new work program.
“For the most part, they [private companies] come to us with an interest, but right now that is definitely the case,” Bowman said.
Russell Stover came to the Kansas Corrections to create a prison work program and became the 42nd employer of prison labor in Kansas.
“The Private Industry program is consistent with our company values and provides a win/win/win situation for residents, the State of Kansas and Russell Stover,” Vice President of Human Resources for Russel Stover Jim Kissinger said. “The residents have been model employees and are developing meaningful skills and experiences while earning livable wage and building solid foundation for their future. For our perspective, this is a perfect partnership and we’re proud to participate.”
Besides this quote given to media in a press release, Russell Stover declined requests for any other statements or interviews about their new work program.
On the correctional side, Bowman discussed the research conducted in Kansas prison showing that work programs lead to 25% getting a wage once released.
“We as a department of corrections are on a pathway to success to get better results for the citizens and residents of our facilities, but also folks on probation, parole and children that we serve in justice in this agency can find their own pathway to their futures have been successful for the benefit of us all,” Bowman said.
With the new program, unit leaders evaluated those who would fit the criteria to work with Russell Stover. Bowman explain how “there’s a range of folks that come to prison and these who are better behaved folks are lower risk.”
The criteria call for those who will be released within the next six to 14 months and do not check off any of these boxes.
-Un-managed sex offender
-Unable to complete the job psychically and physically
-History of escapes in the past 10 years
-Organized crime activity
-Dangerous behavior in prison
-Ongoing violent behavior
-Any indicators of being a danger to society
For those selected to work with Russell Stover, the company pays them $14 per hour. Their wages first pay for their room & board while working, court fees and for some child support before they get to use it. After the bills are paid, they can use their money at the canteen or to book phone calls & emails home.
“When they go out into society, again, they’re not burdened with those debts, at least,” Bowman said.
“They get a paycheck and to some degree, they get decide how they use it, like you and I pay our bills, they get to pay some bills, too,” Bowman continued.
Bowman and Warden Gaither, both thank the local workers at Russell Stover’s Abilene factory for everything.
“Thank you for helping make this so promising to start and hopefully it’ll be successful and sustained for years and years and years to come,” Bowman said. “I bet they’re giving them a little bit of good life advice from time to time that will help these women transition and they’re doing a great contribution to public safety in that regard. Because the more support anybody coming out of a correctional system has, the more likely they are to not re-offend and join us in the community. Thank you to everyone in Abilene who works for Russell Stovers.”
“Thank you to Russell Stover and the community for opening their minds and opening their hearts and accepting these ladies and giving them a second chance,” Warden Gaither.
To learn more about companies working with Kansas Department of Corrections’ work programs, please visit https://www.doc.ks.gov/work-programs-kdoc.