The Alpha Phi sorority at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln had been saving money to update the resident rooms of their house. But the budget was tight.
They found the right combination of talent, cost and style for the right price inside Nebraska's state penitentiary.
The sorority hired Cornhusker State Industries, a division of the Nebraska Department of Corrections, which employs craftsmen who are inmates of the state correctional system.
In late July, after finishing design and construction work, 15 inmates nearing work-release status began the work of unloading and installing beds, desks and drawers in the sorority house. The newly refurbished rooms were ready for the 65 sorority residents on Aug. 9.
The arrival of the Alpha Phi residents marked the end of a months-long redo of second-floor bedrooms in the 1920s-era house. Other work — handled by other businesses — involved installing a heating and cooling system, new flooring and adding ductwork.
Turning to Cornhusker State Industries to make the furniture kept the entire project on budget.
Lisa Stephens, president of the Alpha Phi House Corp., said the residents love their new furniture, with its dark-stained finish and modifications for extra storage.
About two years ago, Alpha Phi asked an alum, Deb Munro of the Interior Design Firm in Omaha, to take on the project. Designers Becky Jackson and Mary Carter joined her.
“We wanted a residential look with commercial quality,” Stephens said.
Munro said she knew from experience that the furniture would have to be of a high quality and workmanship to stand up to heavy use and, at 436 pieces, she knew it could be a challenge for the sorority's budget. The sorority also wanted a custom-made look on a ready-made budget.
The bid from Cornhusker State Industries of Lincoln, a business Munro had used earlier in a Heartland Family Services project, met the needs for a reasonable price.
Travis Atwood, CSI's sales and marketing manager, said the cost came in at $180,000. Stephens confirmed that, adding that the overall cost of the project will be much more.
CSI employs all levels of inmates, except those serving time on death row, from various corrections institutions in the state. Inmates have an incentive, said Atwood. The shops provide job training and one of the higher pay scales in the prison system, up to $1.08 an hour.
Inmates can apply to work in the shops as they would for any other job. They don't need experience, but they do need a record of good behavior. To ensure security on the job, inmates are watched by shop supervisors and guards. Tools are checked in and out each day and workers are searched at the end of their shifts.
Inmates who are approaching work-release status are allowed to install furniture on location. Staff delivery drivers monitor those inmates.
“They take a lot of pride in the products they make,” Atwood said. “We try to provide as many photos and as much feedback as we can.”
About 100 inmates from Tecumseh (Neb.) Correctional Institution and Lincoln Correctional Center worked on the Alpha Phi project, from design to installation.
Woodworking shops are among CSI's 14 specialties, which also include metal, making janitorial chemicals, signs, upholstery, refurbishment, laundry, data entry, sewing, printing, license platemaking and Braille.
One of CSI's more visible projects are the 20,000 rental seats made for Memorial Stadium at UNL. Inmates have also made desks and tables for libraries and schools throughout the state.
CSI's products and services may be tapped by groups only in Nebraska (with the exception of Braille transcription), including state agencies; county and local governments and schools and colleges. Organizations like Alpha Phi qualify.
“We're financially self-sufficient,” said Atwood. “The products we sell fully fund our operations. We have 500 inmates and 65 full-time staff members.”
The cost of the Alpha Phi furniture included drafting designs, materials, fabrication, delivery and installation, Atwood said.
The furniture was made of birch, stained a chestnut color and given a satin (not shiny) finish.
Each room measured about 10x15 feet, said Carter of the Interior Design Firm team. But no two rooms were exactly alike, mainly because of the soffit configuration in each room, she said. In a few rooms, furniture had to be returned to the wood shops for retooling after the soffits were installed.
In most cases, beds and other furnishings were custom designed for individual rooms. Three bed styles were built: loft, bunk and captain's beds (which have under-bed storage drawers). Dressers came with three, four or six drawers. All of the desks are topped by a hutch with shelves and a mirror above the desktop.
“We're so pleased with everything,” said Stephens of Alpha Phi.
Atwood noted the positive feedback from the designers and sorority. That means a lot to an inmate, Atwood said.
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