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New England's Dakota Women's Correctional Rehabilitation Center: Part IV: Prisoners and employment

Robin Winkler, an inmate at Dakota Women's Correctional Rehabilitation Center in New England, rolls out fabric at the facility Tuesday.

NEW ENGLAND -- Inmates at Dakota Women's Correctional Rehabilitation Center aren't allowed to serve their time idling. Every woman is required to work, if not at the facility, then in surrounding communities, officials said.

They are compensated as little as 75 cents a day to $8.18 an hour depending on the job, officials said.

Prairie Industries is a program that allows the women to be compensated hourly for sewing projects inside the prison or to be hired by companies outside prison walls.

"We're trying to provide them with some job skills and some social skills," said Melanie Fitterer, Prairie Industries director. "We don't want them to sit around and lay around and waste their time. We want to help them with their work ethic."

Tracy Hayek, 42, who has served two years, and Robin Winkler, 47, who has served 15 years at DWCRC, are involved in the program.

"I love the sewing and the money," Hayek said. "I like the opportunity to learn a lot of the different things that I didn't know how to do before."

Winkler was convicted of murder in 1997. Hayek was convicted of multiple drug charges in 2010, including delivering methamphetamine by a school.

Hayek said sewing makes her time pass faster.

"Plus it gives us the opportunity to show the parole board that we're capable of functioning the same as we would in the community," Hayek said.

Prior to sewing, Winkler worked in the kitchen at DWCRC, but likes the bump in pay she gets sewing.

"It's like a real job," Winkler said. "I prefer working with food."

Prairie Industries starts inmates at 45 cents an hour. The highest paid inmate in the program is getting $1.59 an hour, Fitterer said.

However, if what they're sewing is shipped across state lines, which is rarely, the inmate gets paid $8.18 an hour, she added.

Part of what inmates are paid goes into a fund to be used when they're released, said Sandy Smith, unit manager.

"If they owe child support, money is automatically taken out of their check too," Smith said. "They have to buy their hygiene products. They buy their snacks that they want."

She added much of their money pays for phone cards.

"We encourage them to budget their money because, of course, those calls are important," Smith said.

Though they are issued khaki pants and a button-up shirts upon arrival, inmates can also purchase their own clothes.

"They'll wear their own jeans and they can wear colorful tops," Fitterer said. "They can pick fabric out of a book and we can sew clothing for them."

However, the amount of clothing they can possess is limited and inmates who get in trouble must wear orange, she said.

Funshine Express in Dickinson employed inmates for about six months, said Production Manager Jerry Tuhy.

"Funshine provides an early child curriculum kit for daycare providers and we use a lot of different types of craft materials and paper products," Tuhy said. They helped basically count out the materials needed and boxed them."

The company looked into hiring the women because they were having trouble recruiting seasonal staff. It also saves money, he added.

"With these people it's strictly just an hourly rate that we end up paying and there's no workman's comp and none of the other things that we normally pay with an employee that we hire for our company," Tuhy said. "In a way, I guess, we felt that we were helping with their rehabilitation -- getting them back in to the workforce and helping them get their lives back on track."

Those inmates who don't want to sew or can't leave the facility work in the kitchen, clean, do laundry, cut hair and perform several other jobs at a daily rate, Smith said.

"Most of the jobs in the facility are paid one amount for the whole day," Smith said. "That can be anywhere from 75 cents for the whole day clear up to $2.60 for the whole day."