Along the Way. . .
Experiences, Insights & Humor on the “Long Road Home”
By Steven Maisenbacher
Well, how do I start about a factory prison job? It’s crazy in that I have done so many different things thru UNICOR, the Federal Prison Industries.
If you are in prison, you need money to exist – and don’t I know because “I ain’t got none.” LOL. So you have to understand, this being in prison is no picnic. Yes, you have the opportunity to eat 3 times a day and yes you will have clothes to wear and a bed with sheets on it, but there is no way you could imagine what it takes for real to be at least half way comfortable in here.
See it’s like this, what if you want to go to the recreation yard? Well if so you’re going to need some tennis shoes because for real you can’t do much of anything but work in the boots they issue out.
You will also need sweat pants and shirt, or shorts, or maybe a pair of workout gloves. If you are like me, you might want to play softball so in order to play the type of game I was accustomed to playing before my back was wrecked, you will need cleats as well.
So after you have been outside “reccin” you’re going to be hungry. The cheapest snack you can get is a ramen noodle or some crackers. My point here is all this costs M-O-N-E-Y. You’ve got to have money if you expect to have any quality of life. So you have to work to earn it. Fair enough.
Now you’ve got to know all the prison jobs are cruddy and don’t pay diddly squat for real. You may get a job say washing dishes, $20.00 a month. A job on the maintenance crew, or as a plumber or electrician, pays a little more, $30-40.00 per month. But trust me, you’re going to work like a gray-mouth mule and it ain’t going to get you but a few soups, a bag of coffee, and maybe some hygiene items like shampoo, toothpaste or deodorant but you will not make it a month on what you can earn in a prison job. Period. End of story.
BUT… If you sign on to go into UNICOR, the Federal Prison Industries, motto: “We’re Life Changing,” you will do so many things that you couldn’t imagine them and you will make enough money to not only eat a little something, but you will be able to use all the soap, shampoo, deodorant and toothpaste you want because you’ll have a few bucks at the end of the month.
UNICOR pay starts out at .22 cents an hour for 90 days, then .44 cents for 90 days, then .66 cents for 90 days, then .92 for 90 days and finally after a year, $1.10 per hour for every hour that you work like a dog in the factory for them.
Now I know that it doesn’t seem like much (and it isn’t ) but I currently make an extra .30 cents an hour for what is called “longevity.” That’s like incentive steps in pay for the amount of time you have been in the factory working, and it follows you if you transfer to another prison and go into the factory, so all the months/years that you have been in UNICOR follow you towards this longevity. The first longevity is a dime, then .15 cents then .20 cents then finally the last step after 7 years, maximum longevity, .30 cents an hour on top of whatever your current hourly rate of pay is. So I am talking bank here folks, enough for those tennis shoes and sweat clothes and snickety snacks and soups and coffee and a whole passel of other stuff to make your “stay” just a tad bit more comfortable.
See, I’m a really proud and vain man, I ask the Creator daily to help me with these failings, but he must think they look good on me because so far, no luck. Anyway, I don’t like to ask anyone for anything unless I’m at the absolute end of all the options available, whether they be what is called “prison hustling” like stealing a loaf of bread out of the chow hall, or washing clothes in the block, or cleaning houses, or writing letters for people. Writing letters I do for free when anyone asks because I know what it is like to not be able to read or write and that is not a good feeling. These are a few of the things that can generate some money if you have nowhere else to go for it.
Now I will say this right now for total transparency, luckily I am a man with people who love me, family, they are always there when I need a little something to tide me over and they have never failed in all the decades of my captivity to come thru and I am sure that sometimes they will scrimp on something to send to me, so here goes… THANK YOU everyone! I love you and I am blessed to have you in my life and there for me.
As for UNICOR, what I want to tell is all truth and these are the facts on what I like to call it – the BAD PLACE – as in, I don’t want to go to the bad place today; I want to sit in the unit and watch TV or go outside and make jewelry, etc. etc. Anyway, there are a zillion things UNICOR has their hands in – here it’s textiles (military uniforms and tactical vests).
Over the years, I’ve built everything from lockers to modesty panels for office cubicles, as well as computer carousels and work stations, I’ve been trained in so many different areas that most people would find it hard to believe. I have journeyman’s ratings in tool and die design, know auto cad, and hand drafting as well. I’m also able to go from the drafting table to the machine shop and build what I design. I’ve run huge Cleveland punch presses and press brakes, overhead cranes that move serious tonnage in steel rolls for industrial fabrication applications, as well as got my millwright certification, but what I have done most of and had the most training for is “quality assurance inspector.” I’ve been a “Q.A.” for more than 19 years, in several institutions.
I’ve been transferred two times in order to train other Q.A.’s in the ISO systems of manufacturing management and am certified to audit internally all ISO systems in place in any factory anywhere in the world, in or out of prison. Even though I am now in my 60ies and have disabilities, if I am forced to work when I’m released, that is the field I will most likely seek out.
We have discussed the why’s of working for UNICOR, now let me tell you about some of the supervisors that I’ve had. I truly can say that some of these cops have had a huge impact on me and my life. I have learned many trades and skills from these dedicated people, I have had laughs and arguments with a few, I’ve had really decent human beings wearing uniforms trying to pay their bills with a good job, teaching me and often working side by side with me, I would never have made it this far in my life without the training and the opportunity to keep my mind busy and my hands active, learning and building and designing and inspecting.
Some of the people who stand out are Ms. G. from Petersburg, Virginia print plant, Mr. Shook, now retired from Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, and Mr. Cox, the factory manager and former quality assurance manager here in Talladega. These are just a few of the people I really feel I owe respect and gratitude to. It’s one thing to come into a prison and know your job is to monitor and supervise a bunch of criminals; it’s another to do it and still treat the men with dignity and respect, and actually try to teach them marketable skills, instill work ethics that some have never had or known. For this I feel like the Creator put these people in my path, to aid me in my journey and to help me become a better man than I ever was before.
You need to hear it from me, I needed to spend my life in here in order to get it right, to get myself right and to be ready for the rest of my journey thru this life. This is just the way it is, I’m not mad or bitter. After all, I could have been gunned down in my youth on the path I was taking and I’d be willing to tell you, it’s thru the Creator’s love and care that I was not. The Creator spared my life, he just put some restrictions in place, to keep me from hurting others or getting hurt, for this I am thankful in every prayer.
I will close out this story with a few other facts. I have worked for UNICOR Federal Prison Industries for 29 years. I have been a Q.A. for more than 19 years, I am soon to be done in UNICOR when I’m released next year at age 62. However… I do not have a 401-K plan, nor a retirement package, nor will I be given a gold watch.
The feds say UNICOR is a training program to help us convicts become able to go into the free world with trades and work ethics, but if this is so then where does the training period stop?
Was it before they sent me to 2 separate prisons to train others in the things I had been trained in or after? All these years and not one dime has been paid into Social Security in my name. Not one red cent, for 29 years of service, 7.25 hours a day, 5 days a week, 52 weeks a year, 29 years. Not one cent will I get for this other than the pittance they have given me. They pay me $1.22 per hour, they charge my time to the customers at a minimum of $15.00 per hour.
You figure it out, not one cent in retirement, 401K or Social Security, but hey, I got some tennis shoes and a soup…
As I prepare to enter the free world next year, I wonder who would hire an ex-felon with my resume:
STEVEN W. MAISENBACHER For more than 20 years I have served as a Certified Quality Assurance Inspector with ISO Certification in UNICOR Federal Prison Industries. I look forward to bringing my experience, skills and work ethic to similar manufacturing operations in the private sector. EXPERIENCE 2001 – 2022 CERTIFIED QUALITY ASSURANCE – ISO CERTIFIED TO AUDIT, UNICOR Worked in various UNICOR manufacturing facilities – Quality Assurance Inspector, with qualifications in textile, automotive, furniture and modular furniture with a strong background in graphic arts, processes and quality assurance requirements. Was trained in ISO standards and eventually tested and certified to audit operations and factory management techniques as well. Have been transferred by the BOP on two separate occasions to two different locations in order to train other inmates in the ISO standards and to assist prison administrators in restructuring the quality assurance departments in these facilities to operate more productively. Most recently I have been working in textile, inspecting military garments. I have worked continuously until my release from prison. SKILLS • ISO Certified to audit, blueprint literate, schematic literate, able to plan and fulfill sequence-oriented jobs. • Able to focus intensely on a task to see its completion. • Intelligent, rational, determined • Patient, loyal, self-starter EDUCATION 1995 – 2000 GED, some college credits and extensive trades training offered in federal prison including: • Tool and Die, Industrial Millwright, Industrial plumber/steamfitter, adult continuing education instructor. • Completed 500-hour residential RDAP program as well as the PrEP DAP 40-hour course and a year aftercare and monthly counseling sessions. Addiction to drugs played a major role in all my crimes as well as problems in life. In fact I would be able to safely and confidently say that had I not been abusing drugs, I would never have committed the crimes that so ruined my life. I have been clean and sober for more than 20 years. 2001 Certified Quality Assurance – ISO certified to audit operations and factory management techniques, UNICOR PERSONAL ACTIVITIES AND GOALS • I am a voracious reader. My favorites are the literary classics from all periods of history and around the world, to the old American west to translations of authentic Native American language, history and culture. I have a passion for reading and learning. • I have worked for years to develop my skills as a jewelry maker and have built my own line of jewelry, “Rocks On A String.” • My greatest passion is singing and songwriting. I have worked as lead singer with prison bands and sung with gospel quartets. My poetry and song lyrics reflect my feelings and experiences. • While in prison I have sought to set a good example for younger inmates who are struggling to overcome their own addictions and irresponsible life ways. On the outside, one of my goals is to use my talents and knowledge to help guide troubled youth away from the life I led and help them find a better path before it’s too late. I would love to enroll in college to gain skills as a youth counselor.
© Steven “Walks On The Grass” Maisenbacher, 2021
* Reference Chapter 12, Long Journey Home for more on UNICOR, Petersburg print plant.