Widget Co.
March 21, 2005 9:34 AM   Subscribe

In addition to the math class, I’m in charge of instructing the violent repeat, juvenile offenders who have earned their GEDs in “experiential life skills.” We have a rewarding brief daily class in money management, employability, independent living, etc. The rest of the day the offenders have jobs around the facility where they’re supposed to be practicing responsibility, initiative, and other workplace skills. In reality, they’re doing mindless chores six hours a day. I’d like this time to be spent more professionally, more business-like, so they can learn something about inventory, cooperation, deadlines, marketing, technology etc. and feel proud doing it.

For example, I heard about a halfway house where the residents grow, package, and sell dried organic food products. Our startup doesn’t even necessarily have to be profitable, though preferably self-sustaining. We have a full woodshop, an unused green house, and probably additional resources at our disposal. Does anyone have an idea for a widget we could generate and sell? No license plate jokes please.
posted by glibhamdreck to Work & Money (17 answers total)
Designer furniture?
posted by delmoi at 9:56 AM on March 21, 2005

You can raise herbs for sale at local restaurants - you can also raise fresh vegetables and do a series of culinary classes on basic, healthy food prep with fresh materials.

You could make handmade soaps/bath products with the garden produce as well.

With a woodshop, there are all matter of ideas. You could do custom signage, small pieces of furniture, niche work like custom picture framing, etc.

To tie in marketing and technology experience, have them create an online store to market their product and teach them about inventory tracking, order fulfillment, etc. I'm not sure if you have internet access though.
posted by annathea at 10:02 AM on March 21, 2005

teach them something salable: start with data entry and move up to web design. Get them employable in an office setting.
posted by By The Grace of God at 10:02 AM on March 21, 2005

Rather than reinvent the wheel, you might try to treat this like a Junior Achievement program.
posted by plinth at 10:04 AM on March 21, 2005

I would suggest that you let the participants figure that out. The more they are involved in the planning, the more they will buy into the concept.
posted by HuronBob at 10:05 AM on March 21, 2005

Does your state's prison labor law allow inmates to run businesses that compete with businesses in the outside world? Are you restrained by requirements that you only sell to state and municipal governments? Will your students' age be a factor?
posted by profwhat at 10:10 AM on March 21, 2005

annathea, they are not allowed internet access or other unapproved contact with the unincarcerated world -- great ideas, though.

profwhat, I'll check, but I doubt there are any non-compete agreements; years ago this facility was one big print shop. However, we likely couldn't sell products to governments that would compete with the state's adult prison industry.

I'm really looking for something simple and mass-producable, so they could teach each other all the necessary craftsmanship quickly, while we focus on work skills and economics.
posted by glibhamdreck at 10:34 AM on March 21, 2005

For anything simple and mass-producable, you might have to deal with the idea that China will almost always be cheaper. If you can do simple, mass-producable, and high-quality, or simple, and customizable (somehow, I know the communication limitations will be a problem), that might be cool.

Hmm...you know what people always seem to need? Shelving.

Heck, I need shelving. The stuff you get at the store seems to always be cheaply made, with veneers over particle board and cardboard for the back. And file cabinets - don't even get me started on the junk in Staples; we went and looked for a file cabinet the other day - the metal ones they had were almost all leaning to one side or another. In The Store. So sad.

And there's a huge need for ways to just organize stuff - I've seen two recent AskMe threads that centered on this problem. Seems that this could even be a somewhat creative thing to do, involving good market research. If you could make high-quality modular, solid-wood shelving (or storage units, or file cabinets), man, especially if it wasn't prohibitively expensive, you could really be popular.
posted by amtho at 11:08 AM on March 21, 2005

Have you asked the participants about their ideas?

I personally like By The Grace Of God's idea. You can definitely teach computer skills, including web design, without an internet connection. Of course, you know best how your participants are going to react to one idea or the other. Perhaps the answer is in a mix of jobs. For those who are good with their hands, furniture can be an especially rewarding thing to produce (speaking from personal experience only), while for those who find it easier to reason out problems virtually, computer skills could be a good fit.

If you're short on funds for the computers, you could find a local Linux User Group (LUG) willing to help set up some low-cost hardware, I'd bet.
posted by odinsdream at 11:20 AM on March 21, 2005

It isn't necessarily a widget, but Delancey Street does almost the same thing with adult cons, on a much larger scale. It might be worth your time to get in touch with them to see if they have wisdom or resources to share.
posted by majick at 12:33 PM on March 21, 2005

If you want to get some good ideas of things that they could make, try going to a craft show. The vendors are mostly amateurs who make things in their homes (jewelry, paperweights, trail mixes, etc), and your class could probably duplicate a lot of the products you see there.
posted by unreason at 1:22 PM on March 21, 2005

Maybe a multifaceted business would be cool so that the kids could rotate through jobs or choose the exact one that appeals...

Such as using the greenhouse to grow flowers, sold in wooden flower boxes (and seeds sold with decorated boxes). Then dry and press flowers, and mount them in shop-made wooden frames. Extract essences from flowers and make soap and oils. Use petals for handmade paper. I imagine there's lots of research to be done here about sources and processes and how long growing time is and how to preserve the plants, plus how to sell the stuff (web business? catalogue? fairs?).
posted by xo at 1:28 PM on March 21, 2005

I think the best idea is to give them a business. Say, you're going to be producing high-quality wooden boxes and stuff. It's up to you to decide how you're going to design, manufacture, manage, and market your products. Obviously all marketing would have to go through you to moderate it, but that doesn't mean that they can't put together a website, give it to you, and let you put it up.

Letting them set the roles helps them discover and develop their personal characteristics. The leaders will rise to lead, the geeks will rise to figure out how to put things to work, the artists will design it and work

I don't think it matters so much what the product is ... it matters more that you can let them find and develop their own skills.
posted by SpecialK at 1:58 PM on March 21, 2005

What xo said! You are in Minnesota with a long cold season and an unused greenhouse? Just letting the inmates grow flowers and vegetables would be helpful whether you could market the crops or not. If they were e.g., Twin Cities mall rats, an introduction to fresh foods could be life changing. Gardening need not take all day and exclude the suggested business aps.
posted by Cranberry at 2:26 PM on March 21, 2005

Forgot to add kudos to you glibhamdreck, for wanting to go beyond your job requirements to enrich your charges' lives!
posted by Cranberry at 2:29 PM on March 21, 2005

You may want to get in touch with/take a look at the New Hampshire Correctional Industries program. Inmates in the state do everything from farming to furniture production to programming(!). Their prices are very competitive and their products, from what I understand, are generally good (their picnic tables are excellent, for example).

And I second Cranberry's good words to you. It's rare to find anyone willing to go the extra mile, particularly in the correctional system.
posted by Rock Steady at 3:12 PM on March 21, 2005

a full woodshop, an unused green house

Perhaps you could ask professionals in the area (cabinet makers, other woodworkers, greenhouse owners) for specific suggestions? You're looking for some sort of business(es) that is(are) relatively labor-intensive and doesn't require a lot of expertise, so you're not really competition for them - and, if you're lucky, they might even offer ongoing assistance as well as help with coming up with ideas.

You also might ask the Minnesota Department of Agriculture for suggestions. And also your local Chamber of Commerce. People really do like to help (as you can see by all the free advice on AskMetafilter), and to be asked if they can help (as long as you're not asking them for money).
posted by WestCoaster at 4:11 PM on March 21, 2005

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