Cut Glass

Green jobs for female inmates


Behind the shiny glass windows at an anonymous Garden City office park, Camille Doughty is pushing discarded wine bottles through a diamond blade wet saw. She removes the skinny tops and passes the bottoms to Lupe (last name withheld), who methodically smoothes and rounds the fresh glass edges, first with 100 grit sand paper.

Lupe smoothes and smoothes until it's fit to drink from.

This small factory is a young nonprofit called Sustainable Futures. It's a spinoff of the Green Foundations Building Center, an environmentally conscious building supplier, with a storefront next door.

Doughty, recently released from the East Boise Community Work Center, and Lupe, the de facto crew boss who remains incarcerated, are some of the first employees at what founder Lisa Scales imagines as a harbinger of the new, green economy.

Van Jones, President Barack Obama's green jobs czar, said in a recent call with reporters that the nation is still coming up with a universal definition of a green job but that many entrepreneurs are moving forward with their own visions of the green economy.

"The debate whether you can do right by the environment and right by the economy is over," Jones said.

At Sustainable Futures, women repurpose wine bottles into glassware. But Scales also aims to create a new kind of business, rebuild lives and redefine--or in most cases, define--sustainability for these women.

The idea started with the glass.

"Our economy doesn't take into account the natural resources we use," said Scales, a radiologist by profession and purveyor of nontoxic paints and flooring by passion. "Glass recycling has really driven me crazy, and there's really no solution ... It really bugs me that we don't have something to do with all that embodied energy."

In the alley behind Sustainable Futures sit boxes and boxes of wine bottles. People in the know have been dropping off their empties for months now. The employees sort and cut the bottles into glassware that local restaurants are just beginning to use.

The unique glasses, with their amber and green tints and Dionysian natural histories, sit full of ice water on tables at restaurants like the Brick Oven Bistro, Bittercreek Alehouse and Dream Cafe.

Another potential revenue stream--sorting and cleaning bottles for return to local wineries--has run into some regulatory hurdles. But Scales believes it will work out and that the nonprofit will become a self-supporting business model.

"We know what our production capacity is, and if we get sales up, it's going to be autonomous," Scales said.

Scales, her green building shop and the Sustainable Futures concept have drawn a unique following, from enlightened business owners, hippies, yogis and self-proclaimed luminaries to professors and even bureaucrats.

The small tribe that either works for Scales or hangs out at the shop helped acquire tools and a commercial dishwasher, navigated the Idaho Department of Corrections, figured out how to manage the workers and stuck around to cook and clean.

Which is where the people part of Scales' sustainability concept comes in to play.

All of the women who come to work in the glass shop are on work release from the Boise work center. They sleep at the minimum-security facility in East Boise and take a van to work each morning.

They pay for transport, and the prison heavily garnishes their wages. Most work release jobs--when there are jobs available for inmates--are in the backs of restaurants washing dishes or prepping. When the women arrived at their Sustainable Futures job, they were not sure what they were getting themselves into.

The place looks like a prison workshop with crates of glass stacked to the ceilings, an inch of dust caked on the floor and hefty women in work gloves and goggles milling about.

But then there is the chill room where the women start their workdays in meditation. And the hugs.

Doughty said she thought Sustainable Futures might be a cult when she first arrived.

"It was really positive people and they hug you all the time and they feed you this organic lunch," the recovering drug addict and convicted forger said. "You watch, and you wait for them to screw up. You wait for them to betray your trust."

But Doughty is now out of prison, reunited with her two daughters and starting her life again with a full-time job at Sustainable Futures.

"This is where I go when I need help or when I'm going through my little everyday struggles, and we process it," Doughty said.

When the women arrive in the morning, they start with a guided meditation in a dark little room with sofas and art on the walls.

For a time, the meditation and the fact that the women who worked there came back to their prison beds in good spirits gave some at the Idaho Department of Corrections pause.

"I think they were really suspicious of us in the beginning ... because we were new and different. They didn't have a template to say how to start a program," Scales said.

Even the word "program" was problematic. This was just supposed to be a 9 to 5.

But the women's salaries are paid, at first, through a federal workforce training grant that requires some programming.

"The thing about work experience is there is some job training that goes on, but equally important to that is what they are learning about, showing up to work on time, having the right attitude," said Kristyn Roan, an area manager at the Idaho Department of Labor who also sits on the Sustainable Futures board of directors.

And Scales wants her workers to succeed so she can hire them when they are released and eventually pay them a living wage.

Overall, Idaho's prison chief is supportive of more workforce training for inmates.

"They are working their way back out," said Brent Reinke, director of IDOC.

Reinke said that inmates on work release are nearing the end of their incarceration and need to be reintroduced to society.

"If we're not careful, we can be turning people out that are worse than when they were incarcerated, and that's not keeping the public safe," he said.

It is not always successful. Scales recently discovered that one of the inmates working for her in a key position had been skimming off the top. She was sent back to the lockup.

"Trust but verify," Scales said. "You can see why in the prison system there's a certain amount of rigidity."

But for Doughty and Lupe, the experience has been life altering.

"As you complete each glass, it's a sense of accomplishment and a sense of pride," Lupe said. "Our ideas and opinions are valued ... I don't go home and say I hate my f-in' job."