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Do Prisoners Make License Plates

License plates are something most of us see every day without much thought. However, have you ever wondered where license plates come from and who makes them? While there are some private companies that manufacture license plates, a significant portion of plates in the United States are made by prison inmates.

In this article, we’ll explore the history of license plate production in prisons, look at which states still use inmate labor for plates, and examine the pros and cons of having prisoners manufacture license plates. We’ll also answer some common questions about prisoner-made plates and provide some concluding thoughts on this practice.

A Brief History of License Plates in Prisons

The practice of having inmates make license plates has been around for over a century. New York opened the first license plate factory in its Auburn Prison in 1910. Soon after, other states started their own plate production operations using prison labor.

For many decades, prisons served as the primary source of license plates in the U.S. Inmates stamped out plates, painted numbers and letters on them, and packaged the finished products for distribution. At one time, nearly every state had some form of license plate manufacturing happening inside prisons.

Some key events and developments related to prisoner-made plates:

  • 1910s & 20s: Prison plate shops open in many states. Plate designs are very simple in these early years.
  • 1930s & 40s: Prison plate production expands to meet growing demand as more cars are on the road. Some states introduce slogan plates.
  • 1950s & 60s: Reflectorized plates that are more visible at night become common. New presses enable faster plate output.
  • 1970s & 80s: Some states start to phase out prisoner-made plates due to labor costs. But many prisons maintain plate shops.
  • 1990s: More state correctional industries close license plate operations as plates become cheaper to purchase from private companies.
  • Today: Only a handful of states continue to have prisoners make some or all of their license plates.
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Which States Still Use Prison Labor for Plates?

While the popularity of inmate-manufactured plates has declined over the years, there are still a few states that rely at least partially on prisoner labor for producing plates:

  • Alabama: The Alabama Department of Corrections runs a license plate plant in its Draper prison facility. Inmates produce the standard plates issued in the state. Specialty and personalized plates are made by a private company.
  • Arizona: Inmates at Arizona State Prison Complex-Florence manufacture the standard license plates for the state. But specialty plates are outsourced to a private provider.
  • Arkansas: Most Arkansas plates are made by inmates at the Tucker Unit prison. Some special plates are produced by a private company.
  • Florida: Florida State Prison and Union Correctional Institution have license plate operations manned partly by inmates. But Florida also outsources some plate production.
  • Kansas: The state uses prisoners to make license plates at Lansing Correctional Facility.
  • Louisiana: Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola) produces the bulk of the state’s plates with inmate labor. Some specialty plates are privately made.

So while not every state relies on prisoners for license plate production today, inmate labor does still play a significant role in some areas.

Pros and Cons of Prison-Made Plates

There are arguments on both sides of the issue when it comes to having inmates manufacture license plates:

Potential Benefits

  • Provides jobs for prisoners, keeping them occupied and active
  • Generates revenue for corrections departments, offsetting costs of incarceration
  • Lowers expenses for DMVs by avoiding private manufacturer fees
  • Plates can be produced quickly in state to meet demand
  • Continues a longstanding practice and tradition

Potential Drawbacks

  • Takes away jobs from law-abiding citizens in private companies
  • Requires costly equipment and maintenance of plate shops
  • Necessitates extra security protocols and measures
  • Poor optics – some view it as exploitative
  • Lower plate quality at times compared to private manufacturers
  • Limited plate design options based on prison shop capabilities

So in summary, prisoner-made plates offer some advantages but also have some reasonable objections regarding jobs, expenses, quality, and optics. There are good-faith arguments on both sides.

Frequently Asked Questions About Prisoner-Made Plates

How many states currently use inmate labor to make license plates?

As of 2023, at least 6 states (Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Kansas, Louisiana) still use prison labor to produce license plates, either for all plates or just standard plates. The number has declined over the decades as more plate production has gone private.

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Does the “Made in USA” slogan on plates refer to prisoners?

Sometimes, yes. Since inmates produce plates in some states, those qualifying plates can carry the “Made in USA” tag. However, many plates marked “Made in USA” come from private companies that employ American workers and produce plates domestically.

Are prisoner-made plates lower quality than other plates?

Not necessarily. Modern prison plate shops have access to advanced manufacturing equipment similar to private companies. But there have been some instances of inferior quality plates coming from certain prison operations in the past. Quality depends on the resources and practices of each corrections facility.

Do prisoners enjoy making license plates or see it as punitive?

Opinions vary amongst inmates. Some are happy to have a job that provides a small income. Others may view it as mundane, repetitive work. Much depends on the specific work conditions and compensation at each prison’s plate shop. But for some inmates, it provides a sense of productivity.

How much are inmates paid for making license plates?

Prisoners typically earn very low wages, often less than $1 per hour, for manufacturing plates and other goods as part of correctional industry jobs. The exact plate shop pay can vary between states. Prisons deduct money for room and board. So inmates do not earn much in take-home pay from plate work.

Are prisoner-made plates inferior or cheaper quality than private company plates?

Not always, but in some cases the materials, quality control and plate designs from prison plate shops may be below the level of specialty plates from private companies. But inmate-made standard plates can still meet the basic requirements and be comparable to mass-produced private plates. Quality depends on the practices and standards at each facility.

So in summary, while facts vary for different states, prisoners generally earn minimal pay for license plate work, and the plates themselves may sometimes show lower quality from prisons versus professional manufacturers. But inmate labor can also fulfill states’ plate needs at low costs while providing employment programs for prisoners.

Quotes on Prison Plate Work from Former Inmates

To provide some additional perspectives on prisoners making license plates, below are a few quotes from individuals who spent time working in correctional plate shops:

“The plate work was outdoors in a fenced area, which was nice. I was making about 25 cents an hour. It wasn’t exciting labor but it helped pass the time quicker on some days.” – Frank K., former inmate in Kansas

“Working in the plate shop was considered a good job in our prison. It was way better than cleaning the cell blocks. We had quotas to meet each day, but I didn’t mind the work too much. It felt good to make something useful.” – Ron T., former inmate in Florida

“I dreaded my shifts at the plate shop. The noise of the machines was awful. The guards would constantly yell at us to work faster. And no matter how many plates I stamped, my pay was only a few pennies a day after deductions.” – Alan B., former inmate in Arkansas

“Making plates all day wasn’t exactly fun, but I was grateful for the plate shop job. It helped me avoid more difficult duties like working the fields. I learned how to operate some big machines. And I made a few friends that made the days go by quicker.” – Juan R., former inmate in Arizona

These anecdotes provide a sampling of the mix of attitudes towards license plate work in prisons. Some inmates see it as a tedious but tolerable job, while others find it stressful and frustrating. But such jobs remain a daily reality for many incarcerated individuals across the country.

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Conclusion

The practice of using inmate labor to manufacture license plates has a long and complex history intertwined with 20th century car culture and prison life. While plate production has increasingly gone private in recent decades, several states still rely at least partially on prisoners to make some or all of their standard plates.

There are reasonable arguments for and against continuing to have inmates stamp out millions of plates each year. Those in favor point to the employment opportunities and low costs it provides prisons. But critics question whether states are exploiting inmates for profit or taking jobs from law-abiding citizens.

Moving forward, debates over prisoner-made license plates will likely continue. But those standard plates sliding out of presses, painted by inmates, and soon found on vehicles throughout your neighborhood, remain a little-considered product of an expansive car culture and massive prison system here in the United States.

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We are dedicated to exploring the intricacies of prison life and justice reform through firsthand experiences and expert insights.

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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