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Special Report: Wooden Treasures

ANAMOSA, IA (KGAN/KFXA) - At first glance Iowa Prison Industries custom wood shop looks like any other wood shop across America. Men are spread out in the large warehouse area, carefully crafting furniture to fill orders for people throughout Iowa.

It's a place where the jobs are coveted.

"I think it gives me a reason to get up in the morning," Blair Greiman an offender who works at the wood shop said.

For offenders like Greiman, power tools are soothing, a boot covered in saw dust is satisfying and calloused, work worn hands are an achievement.

"One time I made a replica of a legislator's desk. I was pretty proud of that one," Greiman said.

After more than 30 years in prison, the wood shop is a life line for Greiman.

"I was just a sixteen year old farm boy when I got in trouble," Greiman said.

After a first degree kidnapping conviction, Greiman is serving a life sentence at the Anamosa State Penitentiary.

"Our goal is to create offender work and meaningful offender work," Al Reiter the Associate Warden of Iowa Prison Industries (IPI) said.

In addition to the wood shop, IPI has seven other divisions. Combined, they account for 380,000 man hours each year.

"Iowa Prison Industries is not appropriated any tax dollars, and so we have to make our living on the sale of our products, just like any business would," Reiter said.

That includes making all of Iowa's license plates.

"On average, probably 1.2 to 1.3 million plates is what we do or around 650,000 pair that's in an average year. With a replacement year, we're probably producing about double that for the first several years," Reiter said.

Offenders also transcribe braille. They receive their certifications from the Library of Congress in all levels of braille transcription. They also produce soaps and cleaning products among other things. IPI sells to government agencies and non-profits. Their custom wood furniture is frequently found in schools.

Iowa City's South East Junior High has made multiple purchases from IPI. Principal Deb Wretman's office is nearly fully furnished by pieces crafted at IPI.

"I believe I have the most beautiful office in the district between all the windows and all the custom made built-ins, and I got to pick out the nice warm, oak color," Wretman said.

Naturally, the overhead is higher for IPI. Other wood shops don't need to pay corrections officers to monitor their workers. However, their prices remain competitive.

"The value for us, as I understand it, is less than 50 percent of what the cost would be. You can ask for specifics that you would otherwise pay an awfully lot to do on the commercial side," Wretman said.

The library at South East had their circulation desk and several work tables designed by IPI. Most recently, they added reading benches,

"The kids have been coming in and sitting on them and reading," Teacher Librarian Elizabeth Schau explained.

Wretman said as an educator, she sees the values in an offender education.

"Being an educator and committed to people finding their way in the world, and being productive citizens, the partnership with IPI allows when we know that the offenders are constructing things for schools, that they are also developing a skill that they can hopefully take out into the world when they're ready to graduate. So we know we're a part of that skill building for them and they're building a legacy of their work, that's helping young people learn," Wretman said.

Joseph Ewig, an offender serving a 25 year sentence for attempted murder, couldn't agree more. His pieces are his own legacy.

"I actually keep a small profile of everything I've built. I've got pictures of it," Ewig said.

For the past few months, he's been working on panels for the Cedar Rapids Public Library. For Ewig, it's his connection to the outside world.

"I've actually seen it on the news, and I'd like to go there and see my finished product when it's done," Ewig said about the library.

Offenders who get the opportunity to work in the custom wood shop are doing what they need to within the walls of the prison. IPI doesn't look at the offenses they committed in the outside world.

"They have to meet certain expectations with their behavior to advance to get these jobs," Reiter explained.

The jobs mean an opportunity to pay restitution, back taxes and family support. The pay check also allows them the chance to afford a few simple luxuries.

"I'm one of the higher paid guys and I make $1.38 an hour," Greiman said.

Starting pay at IPI is higher than in the rest of the prison. It is 58 cents an hour. In other parts of the institution ,jobs pay between 27 cents an hour to 56 cents an hour.

"I save my money. I actually plan on investing so that I have something for my future when I get out," Ewig explained.

If offenders have money left over, they have a commissary where they can buy a lot of the products that you would see in a convenience store. They can also buy time to participate in activities in the prison yard like mini golf.

Overall the recidivism rates for those in IPI are on average lower than the rest of the prison population.

"Over 90 percent of these folks will be released at some point. What do you want back? And that is somebody that has hopefully learned a constructive trade," Reiter said.

And for Blair Greiman, the sounds of power tools are his solace, his sounds of hope.

"Sure that would be living the dream to have my own wood shop, you betcha," Greiman said.

To learn more about IPI, click here -


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