The optical program is only open to women who are nearing the end of their sentences — Ashley hopes to be released in August. Inmates can make up to $125 a month, including bonuses. By contrast, a job in the prison’s kitchen pays about $40 a month, said Rentz, the lab supervisor.
Making eyeglasses is both a science and an art. The prison hosts the only accredited prep course for optician certification in Pennsylvania, according to the American Board of Opticianry.
Inmates pay $225 to take the optician test, which is offered twice a year. That usually means saving their meager earnings from prison jobs, Rentz said, often for months.
The lab is in the basement of the prison. It’s brightly lit and climate-controlled, to protect the banks of equipment valued at more than $600,000. The machines and inventory are funded through the sale of eyeglasses.
Inmates walk around freely in the lab, and take turns choosing the day’s internet radio station. But there are reminders everywhere that it’s still a prison: sharp tools are tethered to stations with thick wires, other instruments are locked in cages.
Prisoners return to their cells seven times each day to be counted. Leaving the lab during work hours requires a pat down and walk through a metal detector.
The process for making most glasses begins with a thick disk of glass, like the bottom of an old-fashioned Coke bottle. With gloved hands, the women pass it back and forth, dipping the disk into machines that whine and shudder as they polish and shape it for a new pair of eyeglasses.
As of May, there were 200 prisoners on a waiting list to get into the program, which begins with a six-month class. There, prisoners learn complicated mathematical formulas and ocular anatomy, information they’ll need to pass the 100-question final exam.
The exam was difficult, said Jill, a 49-year-old grandmother who is scheduled to be released in January.
“There was a a lot of studying,” Jill said. “But I’ll be able to show that I took the extra step to learn something while I was in here. I’m going to need an edge when I get out.”
On the outside, most opticians learn on the job, and some work for years before they’re ready to take the certification exam, said Rentz, who worked in the private sector before joining the prison staff about a decade ago.
Pennsylvania has two prisons for women: Cambridge Springs, a minimum security prison, and the state correctional facility in Muncy, in Lycoming County. At Muncy, female inmates can take part in an apprenticeship program to become auto mechanics, plumbers and welders, among other careers.
Proposals for prison reform
The plight of female inmates is getting attention. Last summer two Democratic U.S. senators, Cory Booker of New Jersey and and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, introduced the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, which seeks, among other things, a ban on shackling pregnant inmates and better access to feminine hygiene products.
While the pending bill is a start, said Villanova’s McCorkel, it only addresses the problems of federal inmates, while the majority of women prisoners serve their time in state prisons and county jails.
“And nothing in the act addresses job training or education even though the research on this is quite clear,” she said. “Incarcerated women face substantial hurdles following their release. Their convictions typically disqualify them from a host of state and federal benefits, including subsidized housing.”
Rentz, who ran labs in the Erie area before working at the prison, teaches the inmates to operate every machine used in the eyeglass-making process. The women also repair the machines if they break down and create computer programs to track inventory. While much of the work is computerized, Rentz occasionally requires them to perform calculations by hand, so that they can fill a prescription the old-fashioned way if needed.
That rigorous training is what differentiates Cambridge Springs from other job training programs, said Kerry M. Richmond, a criminal justice professor from Lycoming College who studies prison industries.
“What they’ve learned in that program sets them apart from other job applicants. They have experience, and that experience lessens the stigma of their criminal record,” Richmond said.
While most prisons have in-house industries, such as sewing factories to make uniforms, or mattress factories to supply inmate bedding, those positions don’t prepare prisoners for employment like the optical lab does, Richmond said.
“There will always be a need for eyeglasses, and there’s an optical component in every big box store, even in rural areas,” she noted.
Inmates in the optical program
learn how to write a resume and get help with job searching. They can start applying for jobs as soon as they get their release date, talking by phone to potential employers. Dozens have been offered jobs this way, with employers agreeing to hold them until the inmate gets out, Rentz said. ‘When I get out’
On one wall of the Cambridge Springs lab there’s a tree-shaped collage of former lab workers’ names, listing the places they’ve landed a job.
It’s a powerful incentive.
Jill, the grandmother who works in the lab, said working in the optical lab changed her attitude. She enjoys calling home and talking about her work making eyeglasses. Her children and grandchildren are proud of her.
She held a series of low-paying jobs in her hometown of New Stanton before arriving in prison, and hopes for better when she gets out next year.
“My chance of coming back to prison is nil,” she said. “I took the time while I’m in here to humble myself, to look at my way of life. I’m hoping to make a better life.”
But the statistics belie Jill’s optimism.
A criminal record is one of the highest hurdles to employment that people returning home from prison face. Female inmates have an even tougher time getting hired when they re-enter society, according to The Sentencing Project, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.
What they’ve learned … sets them apart from other job applicants. They have experience, and that experience lessens the stigma of their criminal record. — Kerry M. Richmond, professor at Lycoming College
The number of incarcerated women in the U.S. ballooned from 26,378 in 1980 to 215,332 in 2014, The Sentencing Project found. Analysts attribute this to a 30-year trend in tougher drug laws.
As of late May, there were approximately 1,230 women serving sentences at Cambridge Springs.
Nationwide, more than 640,000 people are released from prison each year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. About 75 percent of them remain unemployed a year after being released, according to the National Reentry Resource Center. According to a 2017 study by the American Civil Liberties Union, joblessness is the single greatest factor in predicting recidivism.
Ashley, when she gets out of Cambridge Springs and heads back to Johnstown, knows there will be some awkward moments at job interviews. Like explaining the long gap in her work history.
“You know, I just feel that being honest is the best policy,” she said. “I made some bad choices and I have a record, but I don’t want this to define me.”