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Inmates take pride in license plate production

LEBANON — The 135 inmates who make license plates behind bars at Lebanon Correctional Institution perked up when they heard last week that lawmakers are considering ditching the front plate for motorists.

The men, supervised by a staff of nine, crank out 300,000 pairs of plates annually. Starting salary is 21 cents an hour.

Are they worried about “unemployment?”

“It won’t affect us at all,” said Richard Custer, prison employee and tag shop supervisor.

He explained in the manufacturing process, two matching plates are inked and pressed at the same time.

If Ohio becomes a one plate state, it will still take the same amount of manpower to feed the machines, but the amount of materials used, including metal and ink, would be reduced.

“It will change how much we order and have around the shop,” Custer said, noting shipping costs would also be reduced.

The prison has been manufacturing the state’s license plates since 1964. It is a source of pride for all involved, especially inmates .

Larry Griner, shop production clerk, oversees orders received weekly by the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles.

The 51-year-old, who is serving life with no parole for murder, has a lot of energy and the job in the “tag shop” is a good outlet.

“For me, I feel like I am doing something useful,” he said.

Later he added the money is also an incentive.

Inmates are paid by the BMV through Ohio Penal Industries. Many inmates send portion of earnings home, some is taken to pay court fines and they also purchase extras including anything from potato chips to soap while in prison.

Those without a job are given $8 a month for “hygiene needs.” A bar of soap currently sells for 18 cents at LCI.

Paris Simpson, 31, of Dayton, also serves a production clerk. He said it is the only job he has ever had for more than three months.

Simpson returned to the prison system in 2003 and is serving a 33-to-life sentence for murder and aggravated robbery.

“It has really built up my character having a job,” Simpson said. “I have learned how to communicate with others better.”

Both Simpson and Griner say knowing plates they had a hand at making makes them feel proud.

“It gives me something to talk to my mom and son about. Something other than being in here,” Simpson said.

Shop inmates often spot plates they have made on movies and television shows.

They also get special orders for such productions.

“We saw our plates on ‘Cold Case’ and ‘Criminal Minds,’ ” Griner said, “We remembered making them.”

The tag shop inmates work 6½ hours a day. Custer said they would work more, but the have to return to their cells nine times day to be counted. That takes away from the work day. Inmates also earn “personal time” after they have been in the job a certain period of time.

“It’s not really vacation, because they don’t get to go anywhere,” Custer said with a laugh.

Griner said he uses his paid personal time to supervise the softball team.

Custer has managed the tag shop for 14 years. He has only had to break up four fights in that time, despite the access to sharp objects.

Security is tight for inmates coming and going from the shop with metal detectors standing at the ready.

He said shanks have been found in the prison made from just about anything inmates can get their hands on .

“Not one of them is made from a plate.” Custer said.

Warden Tim Brunsman said giving inmates a job to keep them busy is a win for everyone.

“You know what they say about idle hands,” Brunsman said. “If these guys are not busy, they are in their cell with nothing to do but think.”

Most of the time it isn’t good thoughts.

Working in the tag shop, Brunsman said, is as close as they can make it for inmates to having a job in society.

“Some of them will leave,” the warden said, he added making license plates requires them to get up, show up for work and hopefully learn some skills and responsibility.

Sheriff, police say one-plate proposal flawed

BUTLER COUNTY — Ohio car enthusiasts say front license plates mare the look of a vehicle and lawmakers project eliminating them would save up to $1.65 million a year.

But area crime fighters point out saving lives and solving crimes is priceless.

Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones said he didn’t like drilling two holes in bumper of his car, but he likes letting suspects get away even less.

“What is your safety worth?” Jones said.

This week a bill was again pitched to eliminate the requirement for Ohio’s 13 million registered vehicles to display both front and back license plates.

At a time when legislators are working to cut spending, lawmakers said the cost savings would be more than $1 million in production and distribution costs. The proposal has been debated often in the past, but with hard financial times, this time it may get a more serious push, law enforcers fear.

Lt. Wayne Price, commander of the Hamilton Post of the Ohio Highway Patrol, said troopers have seen an increase in violators. More vehicle owners are blatantly ignoring the law and risking a citation.

If Ohio becomes a “one-plate state” like neighbors Indiana and Kentucky, Price said, “You cut the opportunity for law enforcement to solve some crimes in half.”

He said hit-skip crashes have been solved because front license plates were left at the scene, and in some serious traffic incidents only the front plate is visible.

Officers said front plates are a tool in investigating crime as well as keeping streets safe.

Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was stopped shortly after the massacre because his 1977 Mercury Marquis did not have a front licence plate, Price said. That charge and a concealed gun violation landed him behind bars, and three days later he was identified as the subject of a nationwide manhunt.

Unlike Ohio’s seat belt law and some other traffic violations, violating the two license plate law is a primary offense and driver can be stopped for only that violation.

Hamilton police Chief Neal Ferdelman agreed a front license plate is a tool an officer needs to find suspects.

“We are faced with so may driveoffs and thefts where all anyone sees in a front license plate,” the chief said. “I think priorities are skewed when lawmakers are more concerned about the appearance of a car and give more weight to that than the apprehension of a suspect.”

Middletown police Chief David VanArsdale was direct and to the point, “I am not in favor of that, it is too much of an advantage in solving crime.”

Ed Larkin, a manager at Rose Automotive in Hamilton, said he often hears grumbling about front plate requirements.

“Most people like the front bumper clean,” Larkin said. “Some think it takes away from the looks of the vehicle.”

He said a change in the law would not effect dealers, “But I would say this, if law enforcement finds it useful in finding law breakers, it is not too much of an inconvenience for me.”

Contact this reporter at (513) 820-2168 or lpack@coxohio.com.