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CNC Can Mean a Job - Published in American JailsCNC Can Mean a Job

Published in American Jails November | December 2012 issue
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Prison Industries Utilize CNC Equipment to Improve Productivity and Train Inmates for Jobs on Outside

Many prisons have workshops that produce furniture, signs, cabinets and other items that are typically sold to government agencies or non profits. The primary goal of these operations is usually to provide training and rehabilitation to inmates; however, they normally operate without any funding from government so they must be efficient to be commercially viable. A number of prisons are addressing this challenge by utilizing computer numerical control (CNC) equipment to increase inmate productivity while at the same time giving inmates marketable skills by teaching them to use equipment that is common in private industry.

Vermont Correctional Industries (VCI), Newport, Vermont, and the Wisconsin Department of Corrections Fox Lake Correctional Institution and Stanley Correctional Institution are three state enterprises that have accomplished both goals by equipping their workshops with the latest CNC equipment.

"CNC machinery has helped us create new product lines in signage while providing inmates with skills that will equip them to work in private industry when they leave prison," said Lyle Pepinski, Stanley Correctional Industries Superintendent, Badger State Industries, Wisconsin Department of Corrections.

Vermont Correctional Industries case history

VCI Newport has been producing furniture for Vermont state agencies, municipalities and nonprofits since 1994. Its CNC machining is a partnership between Community High School of Vermont (CHSVT) and VCI. CHSVT is the country’s only accredited high school within the Dept. of Corrections and inmates earn vocational course credits toward their diplomas by taking the CNC courses offered by VCI. VCI operates independently, much like a business, outside of the Department's General Fund appropriation. All of the state staff, inmate workers and costs of production are paid for from the sale of goods and services. By law, VCI's customer base is limited to federal and state agencies, municipalities, and non profit organizations. These restrictions strike a compromise between the important goals of protecting private companies from unfair competition and providing meaningful work and job training to help offenders succeed when they return to their communities.

The furniture shop originally used solely table saws and bandsaws to produce work zones, base cabinets, wall cabinets, storage cabinets, etc. The previous methods required considerable amounts of time to perform more complicated jobs. For example, a corner work zone has a corner top with a 45 degree angle cut into it for the keyboard. In the past, inmates would cut a 48 inch square piece on the table saw, then move to a bandsaw and rough cut the 45 degree angle. Finally, they attached a straight edge to the piece and ran a router along it to generate a clean surface on the edge. The entire process took about 45 minutes.

Techno machine cuts an octagonal table top and rectangular 
tops at Vermont Correctional Industries

Another example of a job that is difficult using the conventional methods is producing a L-shaped top for a smaller work zone. In the past, inmates cut two rectangular pieces and used "dogbones" to fasten them together. This process took 30 minutes and produced a work surface with a seam. One more example is producing the sides of cabinets. In the past, inmates would cut the piece to dimension on the table saw, take it to another machine to drill 32mm holes for adjustable shelving, then finally to a dado saw that cut dados for fixed shelves, backs and bottoms. The entire process took about 90 minutes to produce the two sides for a cabinet.

Michael Lacoss, Jr., Vocational Coordinator for CHSVT, said that the organization found it difficult to stay competitive using traditional manual woodworking methods and was also concerned that with industry rapidly moving to CNC machines that inmates were learning skills that would be obsolete in the outside world. Lacoss researched CNC machines designed for woodworking on the Internet. He selected the Techno LC4896 because it offers a large 48 by 96 inch table suitable for furniture making, high accuracy, and rugged construction at an economical price. Ball screws are provided on all three axes, offering smooth motion, a high level of accuracy and repeatability, and minimal maintenance. A closed loop servo control system provides constant position feedback, higher power, and smooth continuous motion that eliminate the possibility of losing position in the middle of a part.

The CNC router substantially reduces the time required to complete the difficult jobs mentioned above by cutting complex shapes in a single motion and changing tools when needed to cut the complete part in a single setup. The CNC router cuts the angled desktops for work zones in only two minutes and also cuts L-shaped hutch and desktops in only two minutes. The router produces cabinet sides in 10 minutes, using a five-station tool changer to switch from a 32mm drill to various size cutters. The CNC router cuts L-shaped desktops from a single piece of wood so the seams are eliminated. Accuracy is also much better with the CNC router. "These time savings have made Vermont Correctional Industries more competitive, helped win new business and quickly paid for the Techno machine," said Lacoss.

Corner top produced by VCI Newport

Just as important is the fact that inmates now learn marketable skills that are in high demand in private industry. A recent article in Forbes Magazines stated that: "While the easy jobs are gone, there’s one skill applicants can learn that will get them an offer from any manufacturer across the country — and most likely, around the world. People who can run CNC machines can write their own ticket, as Dustin Dwyer of our Changing Gears public media project found out… Graduates of places like Grand Rapids, Mich., Community College can earn double the minimum wage, and as much as $80,000 a year – without a four-year degree." Lacoss added, "The guys who show interest in learning how to run the CNC are really excited by it. By learning CNC they are gaining the potential to earn a substantial income on the outside."

Wisconsin Department of Corrections case history

The Wisconsin Department of Corrections purchased a Techno Premium Class 59120 CNC router for its Fox Lake Correctional Institution in 2005 and another one for Stanley Correctional Institution in 2011. These woodworking shops produce furniture and signage for state agencies, universities, the Department of Natural Resources and the prison system itself.

"I thought it would beneficial to the inmates to learn how to program and operate machines that are used in private industry to produce a wide range of metal, plastic and wood products," Pepinski said. "I selected the Techno machine because it comes with Mastercam CNC programming software and uses standard G code. Both of these tools are used by a wide range of woodworking and metalcutting shops so inmates who have trained on them are well qualified to work nearly anywhere. I also like Techno’s flexibility in offering a wide range of spindles for each size of machine. In seven years of operation at Fox Lake, the machine has run flawlessly without any maintenance problems."

Techno CNC routers used for woodworking are available at a fraction of the cost of heavier and more complex machines used to produce metal parts yet they operate on the same principles.

3D sign produced for Wisconsin state agency at Stanley 
Correctional Facility on Techno CNC router

Stanley Correctional Institution brings in trainers from First Technology, Mukwonago, Wisconsin, to teach inmates how to program and operate the Techno machine. The training is based on the Introduction to CNC curriculum that is provided with the Techno machine. The curriculum offers a number of project-oriented lessons that walk the student (or teacher) through step-by-step instructions on how to use the CNC machine, how to fixture parts to the machine, and even how to use the Mastercam software.

After the training is completed, the inmates begin operating the machines to put their new knowledge to use. Students at the GED level take about six months to become proficient at operating the machine and another six months to become skilled programmers. After they have become experienced, a new inmate is rotated into the group and trained by the others. Civilian shop specialists also work with the inmates to help them overcome difficulties. Many inmates are so interested in learning to operate and program the machines that they take manuals back to their cells to study in their spare time.

Another 3D sign produced at Stanley Correctional Facility

"The CNC equipment has given us the opportunity to create new product lines by creating 3D signs that are much more complex than what we could do in the past," Pepinski said. The sign shops at the two Wisconsin correctional facilities produce a wide range of signs with 3D lettering, logos and images. For example, signs for the Department of Corrections incorporate a 3D version of the Department’s logo. Inmates made a 3D plaque to honor a small child with a serious illness and the child wrote a letter thanking the inmates involved. The CNC router has also substantially reduced the time required to produce simpler 2D geometries such as furniture components.

"CNC machinery has helped take our prison workshop to the next level by increasing productivity, enabling us to build more complex products and providing inmates with skills that are in demand on the outside," Pepinski concluded.

Layered sign produced at Stanley Correctional Facility

For more information on the CNC machine described in this article, contact Techno. Phone: 516-328-3970, E-mail:, Web site: 

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