Making license plates is the stereotypical job for a prisoner, but in the Central Valley there's a group of inmates doing very different work -- supplying milk to almost all the prisons in the state system.
The low wages for the work may be shocking to people on the outside, but inmates say the job gives them something else.
Dairy on Prison Grounds
Jose Franco and some colleagues move 20 cows into a milking building. Wearing a prison jumpsuit, Franco stands in a kind of trough below two rows of cows, their udders easily within reach. He dips each teat in iodine and wipes it off to make sure it's clean before he attaches a pump to each udder.
"We milk close to 300 cows a day," he says. "I like it -- milking them, going out to get them, bringing them in."
Franco’s is serving a sentence for vehicle theft. He never had a job around animals or agriculture before, but for the past four months, he’s worked here, from 4 a.m. until noon. He earns 65 cents an hour, and that wage is much better than most jobs in prison. Even though he’s only assigned to work five days a week, Franco says he’s here every day.
“I like coming out here to be away from the people in there, in the yard,” Franco says.
There's been a dairy on this land since the 1950s, decades before the prison was built. It sits on 30 acres, on prison grounds but outside what's called the "secure perimeter." Ten guys work a shift out of about 30 assigned to the dairy. Corcoran is a high-security prison, with Level 1 to Level 4 inmates and two Security Housing Units (solitary confinement). Only inmates with the lowest security risk, Level 1, can work at the dairy.
Just outside the milking building, inmate Tony Sao maneuvers a loader to scoop precise amounts of oats and hay that are mixed in a feeder.
"From there I take the feeder and dump the food to where the cows are at so they can eat" and stay healthy, he says.
Sao is serving a sentence for grand theft, and he's been at this job for a year.
"It's good," he says. "The days go by as long as I'm keeping busy and doing a productive program."
Sao has also never worked in agriculture before. That's typical, says Rob Roehlk, who oversees the dairy and milk processing programs at Corcoran and some prison industry programs at other Central Valley facilities.
"They come in and they haven't really seen a cow before, haven't milked a cow before," he says.
Roehlk is an administrator with the California Prison Industry Authority, part of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
He says most inmates are from urban areas. Both Franco and Sao are from L.A. County.
"We usually don't get workers out here that have any work skills," Roehlk says, but he adds that some come with construction experience, like Jose Franco, and some with experience operating heavy equipment, like Tony Sao.
"We just build on it," Roehlk says.
The California Prison Industry Authority runs like a business, selling products like the milk produced at Corcoran to other state agencies. Inmates hold lots of different jobs, but Prison Industries employees are a select group. Of California's 116,000 inmates, just under 7,000 have Prison Industry jobs. More than 10 percent of those are food-related, from coffee roasting to food packaging to almond farming.
For Rob Roehlk, whose family has been in the dairy business for generations, running a dairy in a prison is a little different than the private sector. He says he's only rarely had to deal with violence, but he has had to deal with whole-prison lock-downs.
"The cows don't wait if you don't have workers," he says. "They don't wait to be milked or fed." Non-inmate staff step in to take up the slack.
There are other issues: keeping a lookout for smuggled items like cell phones, and doing hourly inmate head-counts. The selection process is strict, but a number of inmates have escaped from the dairy, though they were all caught.
"Our payoff as an organization is to employ inmates and teach them a job skill so that when they are released they can get out there and sustain a living," Roehlk says.
However, Prison Industries doesn't collect employment data on former inmates, so it's hard to tell how many get jobs when they're released, or how many are employed in field they worked in while incarcerated.
The agency reports that their former employees return to prison about 30 percent less frequently than the general prison population, though it's a little hard to compare those groups since Prison Industries workers are carefully selected in the first place.
I have to pass through the prison's secure perimeter to get to the milk processing facility, where huge tankers deliver milk from the dairy. That's where I meet Edward Wilson and Ryan Mons who are hand-picked out of a crew of seventeen men to give me a tour of the recently-updated processor, which mirrors bigger commercial facilities. They don't talk about recidivism rates and employment data. They're confident their experience here will get them jobs on the outside.
Wilson earned a number of licenses in prison to do this job.
"I'm the laboratory guy," he says. "I test all the milk for bacteria and enzymes and things of that nature."
Wilson is from the Riverside County town of Hemet.
"There's a lot of dairies down there," he says, and he'd like to look for similar work when he gets released in 2017.
With a half-dozen supervisors, guards and public information officers surrounding us, Wilson says with a laugh, "Hopefully I'll get a good recommendation," and then he turns more serious. "I really enjoy what I do. I consume the milk, and I wouldn't want to send out milk that's not good for consumption. I take pride in what I do."
That's kind of new for Wilson, who is serving a sentence for second-degree attempted murder.
"I've never been involved in things like this, but I would like to pursue it back into society," he says. "Not just for this job, but it shows what you're capable of for any kind of job."
His colleague Ryan Mons holds a pasteurizing license, and he takes up the tour from here.
"This guy makes sure it's good," Mons says. "If he gives me the okay, I pasteurize the milk, cook it, make sure the temperature is good, make sure we can run it through our tanks and we can pack it."
The milk produced at this and one other prison is sold to state institutions like veterans homes and state hospitals, according to Prison Industries.
The division also provides a carton of milk a day to almost every inmate in California.
'Show Them I Can Do It'
So what are meals in the prison like, aside from the milk? I ask Mons. In a word, he says, small.
"You don't starve," Mons says. "There's a store and you can go to the store and buy food. Plus if you work back here, you get to drink milk all day, chocolate milk, whole milk, non-fat milk, 1 percent."
Aside from staying off the yard, Mons says working here helps him pay restitution and save a little money for when he's released this December after serving a sentence for grand theft. He hopes to get a job like this after leaving prison.
"I've got to go down there and apply, let them know how I work, and apply my effort," he says. "Show them. Show them I can do it."
He's hoping an employer will give him a chance, based on his two years of experience at this milk processing plant.