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Prison Manufacture of Licence Plates

In at least 37 states and the province of Ontario, government-issued licence plates are manufactured in prisons by the labour of incarcerated people.

With a literally captive workforce, prison industries do not have to pay a competitive wage. Prisoners lack the ability to collectively bargain, and work in dangerous, injurious environments exempt from safety regulations. In the United States, the average correctional industries high salary is $1.41...less than one-fifth the minimum legal wage. The average low is even less...sometimes much less. In Texas, prison jobs aren't paid at all: Licence plates there are quite literally produced under legalized slavery.

In collecting circles, prison manufacture of licence plates is something like "In God We Trust" as a motto: It's something patently inequitable, that far too many treat like an age-old Truth Not To Be Questioned. If people bothered being inquisitive, they'd find that the trend was actually ex post facto, unwarranted, and (occasionally) younger than they are.

In the early days of motor vehicles, all licence plates were produced by civilian-employing manufacturers...whether they were sign shops, print shops, metal enameling companies, or the local blacksmith nailing aluminum figures to a leather pad. Although a few states such as Pennsylvania employed prison labour in licence plate manufacture as early as the nineteen teens, the trend didn't take hold nationally until more than a decade later. The mean and median year that U.S. states embraced prison labour for licence plates was 1930: One year into the Great Depression.

The obvious motive for this was financial: To save the state a buck, by oblivating the manufacturer from the need to pay wages or obey any of the labour laws that would see passage that decade. But racism also played a role. Southern states in the post-Civil War period embraced prison labour as a means for white constituents to keep former slaves and their descendants under their thumb. Black Codes and vagrancy laws ensnared lives, turning Black Americans into criminals for violating petty and arbitrary rules that white people were exempt from. 1930 was smack dab in the era of Jim Crow, and an era when inequitable imprisonment was becoming more entrenched by the day: "Between 1930 and 1936 alone, black incarceration rates rose to a level about three times greater than those for whites, while white incarceration rates actually declined."

The vast majority of states (and one province) that continue to use prison labour place their manufacturing operations under the administration and oversight of a government-owned agency, typically with "Correctional Industries" or some variation thereof in the name. This at least implies some degree of public oversight, toothless as it may be. But sometimes, not even that exists. The absolute worst arrangement is in (of course) the State of Florida...which not only uses prison labour for licence plates, but outsources the manufacturing process to a unaccountable private corporation that pads the pockets of its directors at public expense.

Licence plates are very profitable. In the state of Washington, the profit margin of prison-made plates runs as high as 27 percent. Government agencies there succumbed to a conflict-of-interest tug-of-war, with the state's Correctional Industries pushing mandatory replates on the Department of Licensing in order to increase plate production, increase the rate of prison labour, and increase its bottom line. Similar situations have undoubtedly erupted in other states as well.

Prison manufacture does have one benefit: To impart vocational skills in the tool, die, and machinery trades upon inmates to serve them post-release, or so the apologist theory goes. But this "benefit" isn't borne out by reality. A 2016 article uses two case studies to point a harsh light at this notion: "People don't make enough money to save for when they leave prison, so the work they do is fruitless." Little connection exists between work duties and compensation: "Pay depended on their willingness to kiss up to corrections officers and rat people out." Licence plates were "grunt work," having little connection to transferable post-prison skills. Moreover, formerly incarcerated people face severely detrimental employment prospects, and often find themselves shut out of jobs matter how many plates they obligingly stamp out in the meantime.

In 1973, an overcrowded prison with deplorable conditions in Oklahoma became the scene of one of the largest and most destructive prison riots in history. In addition to causing three deaths and $20 million of material damage, the revolt damaged or destroyed the state's stock of 1974 licence plates and forced the state to rely on non-prison contract manufacturers for several years. But lessons went unlearned: "Provisions [to limit capacity to 300-500 prisoners, improve training, and increase salaries] were never fully implemented," and the prison was the scene of unrest yet again in 1985. Maryland went through a plate production interruption in Jessup two decades later, capping off an epidemic of inmates being stabbed in a violent and understaffed environment. Clearly in both states, "low-cost" prison labour had a very high price.

Seven out of ten Canadian provinces have never relied on prison manufacture, and neither have the states of Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Oregon, or (with one exception) Mississippi. Today, all twelve of these places (and a scattering of others) are beholden to a single company for licence plates: The Waldale Irwin Hodson Group, itself a subsidiary (or joint venture, depending on who I ask) of German-based Utsch. As a non-prison enterprise, Waldale Irwin Hodson is obligated to follow labour laws, pay workers a legal wage, and offer them benefits. They're also a private company, and they're out to make a buck.

Trouble is, thanks to the dominance of prison labour, non-prison licence plate manufacture has contracted into a cottage industry dominated by a single supplier. Practically no direct alternative to Waldale Irwin Hodson exists. A state that wants to abandon prison labour and switch to a contract manufacturer with open capacity and a known track record is almost obligated to make themselves beholden to Waldale, with no second source to offer a competing bid or alleviate shortages in the event of a production interruption.

This wasn't always the case. Waldale and Irwin-Hodson were separate companies prior to 2005. Competing companies such as Acme (Quebec), Astrographics (BC), Demco (Delaware), Hi Signs (Alberta), King-Seeley (Illinois), Polyvend (Arkansas), and Robert Neal (Newfoundland) have played musical chairs and disappeared, either exiting licence plate manufacturing as unviable or going out of business entirely.

The most socially-progressive manufacturing solutions are found in Illinois and Kansas. Rather than utilizing out-of-state private contractors or prison labour for licence plate making, these states instead maintain a close relationship with small in-state nonprofits that run manufacturing operations. Uniquely, these organizations dedicate themselves to employing individuals with cognitive, intellectual, or development disabilities; providing vocational opportunities, resources, and encouragement to individuals who would otherwise have difficulty supporting themselves or leading independent lives. Macon Resources in Illinois considers manufacturing to be simply one of many ways it helps the community, and the organization also leads summer camp programs, mental health programs, and community employment services.

Some states are strangely cagey about where their licence plates are made. Flat plates with non-embossed characters involve less complicated manufacturing procedures than embossed plates (with the trade-offs of lesser quality and higher price), and in Wyoming and South Carolina their introduction coincided with the old prison plate shops being shut down. Yet, any mention of where these states are having their plates made now...and whether they're produced in prison or non-prison completely absent from the Internet.

Strangely, the most straightforward and obvious solution to licence plate non-prison factories, owned and directly operated by the state itself...appears to be done in only one place: Georgia. According to a 2015 article, plates in the Peach State are produced in a printing plant run by the Georgia Department of Revenue, which also issues the plates. A quote in the piece tells all: "Nothing in the state of Georgia is made within the correctional industries." At least, not anymore.

      = Prison manufacture       = Non-prison manufacture

Many states and provinces have had multiple licence plate manufacturers over the years, and some states and provinces with prison industries have made use of non-prison or out-of-state prison manufacture on occasion due to plate shortages or other emergency situations.


Jurisdiction Start of prison manufacture End of prison manufacture Present manufacturer
British Columbia 1931 1977 Waldale Manufacturing Ltd. (Waldale Irwin Hodson Group), Amherst, NS
Alberta 1956 1980 Waldale Manufacturing Ltd. (Waldale Irwin Hodson Group), Amherst, NS
Saskatchewan Never Waldale Manufacturing Ltd. (Waldale Irwin Hodson Group), Amherst, NS
Manitoba Never Waldale Manufacturing Ltd. (Waldale Irwin Hodson Group), Amherst, NS
Ontario 1931 present Central East Correctional Centre (Trilcor Industries), Lindsay, ON
Quebec Never Relief Design Inc. (Waldale Irwin Hodson Group), Saint-Louis-de-Blandford, QC
New Brunswick Never Waldale Manufacturing Ltd. (Waldale Irwin Hodson Group), Amherst, NS
Nova Scotia Never Waldale Manufacturing Ltd. (Waldale Irwin Hodson Group), Amherst, NS
Prince Edward Island Never Waldale Manufacturing Ltd. (Waldale Irwin Hodson Group), Amherst, NS
Newfoundland & Labrador Never Waldale Manufacturing Ltd. (Waldale Irwin Hodson Group), Amherst, NS
Yukon 1958* 1977* Waldale Manufacturing Ltd. (Waldale Irwin Hodson Group), Amherst, NS
* Produced out-of-territory in BC.
Northwest Territories Never Waldale Manufacturing Ltd. (Waldale Irwin Hodson Group), Amherst, NS
Nunavut Never Unknown

United States:

Jurisdiction Start of prison manufacture End of prison manufacture Present manufacturer
Alabama 1928* present Holman Correctional Facility (Alabama Correctional Industries), Escambia County, AL
* In addition, plates in 1924 were reportedly produced with out-of-state prison labour in Michigan.
Alaska Never The Irwin Hodson Group (Waldale Irwin Hodson Group), Portland, OR
Arizona 1947 present Arizona State Prison (Arizona Correctional Industries), Florence, AZ
Arkansas 1936 1942 Waldale Manufacturing Ltd. (Waldale Irwin Hodson Group), Amherst, NS
California 1947 present Folsom State Prison (CALPIA), Folsom, CA
Colorado 1924* present Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility (Colorado Correctional Industries), Cañon City, CO
* In-state prison manufacture began 1926.
Connecticut 1920 present Cheshire Correctional Institution (Correctional Enterprises of Connecticut), Cheshire, CT
Delaware Never Waldale Manufacturing Ltd. (Waldale Irwin Hodson Group), Amherst, NS
District of Columbia 1928 2001 Federal Correctional Institution, Cumberland (UNICOR), Cumberland, MD (presumed)
Florida 1925* present Union Correctional Institution (Picture Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises, Inc.), Union County, FL
* In-state prison manufacture began 1927.
Georgia 1930 2012 Georgia Department of Revenue (Motor Vehicle Division) printing plant, Fulton County, GA
Hawaii Never The Irwin Hodson Group (Waldale Irwin Hodson Group), Portland, OR
Idaho 1927 present North Idaho Correctional Institution (Idaho Correctional Industries), Cottonwood, ID
Illinois 1933 1935* Macon Resources, Inc. (a nonprofit organization), Decatur, IL
* In addition, most Illinois plates from 1979 to 1983 were produced by out-of-state prison labour in Texas and New York.
Indiana 1931* 2016 Intellectual Technology Inc., Fort Wayne, IN
* Some plates from 1919 to 1921 were also produced by prison labour.
Iowa 1926 present Anamosa State Penitentiary (Iowa Prison Industries), Anamosa, IA
Kansas 1928 1975 Center Industries Corp. (a nonprofit organization), Wichita, KS
Kentucky 1931 present Kentucky State Reformatory (Kentucky Correctional Industries), La Grange, KY
Louisiana 1932 present Louisiana State Penitentiary (Prison Enterprises), Angola, LA
Maine 1936 present Bolduc Correctional Facility (Maine Department of Corrections Prison Industries), Warren, ME
Maryland 1923 present Jessup Correctional Institution (Maryland Correctional Enterprises), Jessup, MD
Massachusetts 1920 present Massachusetts Correctional Institution-Cedar Junction, Walpole, MA
Michigan 1922 present Gus Harrison Correctional Facility (Michigan State Industries), Adrian, MI
Minnesota 1949 present Minnesota Correctional Facility-Rush City (MinnCor Industries), Rush City, MN
Mississippi Never?* Waldale Manufacturing Ltd. (Waldale Irwin Hodson Group), Amherst, NS
* By some accounts, 1931 plates were produced by prison labour in Louisiana.
Missouri 1934 present Jefferson City Correctional Center, Jefferson City, MO
Montana 1928 present Montana State Prison (Montana Correctional Enterprises), Deer Lodge, MT
Nebraska 1933 present Nebraska State Penitentiary (Cornhusker State Industries), Lincoln, NE
Nevada 1932 present Northern Nevada Correctional Center, Carson City, NV
New Hampshire 1933 present New Hampshire State Prison for Men (New Hampshire Correctional Industries), Concord, NH
New Jersey 1919 present Bayside State Prison, Maurice River Twp., NJ
New Mexico 1934 1999 Waldale Manufacturing Ltd. (Waldale Irwin Hodson Group), Amherst, NS
New York 1921 present Auburn Correctional Facility (Corcraft Products), Auburn, NY
North Carolina 1930 present North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women (Corrections Enterprises), Raleigh, NC
North Dakota 1934 present North Dakota State Penitentiary, Bismarck, ND
Ohio 1919 present Lebanon Correctional Institution (Ohio Penal Industries), Lebanon, OH
Oklahoma 1924 present Conner Correctional Center (Oklahoma Correctional Industries), Hominy, OK
Oregon Never The Irwin Hodson Group (Waldale Irwin Hodson Group), Portland, OR
Pennsylvania 1917 present State Correctional Institution Fayette (Pennsylvania Correctional Industries), La Belle, PA
Rhode Island 1938 present Rhode Island Department of Corrections John J. Moran Facility, Cranston, RI
South Carolina 1930 2007 Unknown (Broad River Correctional Institution, Columbia, SC prior to 2007)
South Dakota 1928* present South Dakota State Penitentiary (Pheasantland Industries), Sioux Falls, SD
* In-state prison manufacture began 1930.
Tennessee 1938 present Riverbend Maximum Security Institution (Tennessee Rehabilitative Initiative in Correction), Nashville, TN
Texas 1935 present Wynne Correctional Unit, Huntsville, TX
Utah 1937 present Utah State Prison (Utah Correctional Industries), Draper, UT
Vermont 1923* present Northwest State Correctional Facility (Vermont Correctional Industries), Swanton, VT
* In-state prison manufacture began 1936.
Virginia 1929* present Powhatan Correctional Center (Virginia Correctional Enterprises), State Farm, VA
* In addition, plates in 1924 were produced with out-of-state prison labour in New Jersey.
Washington 1923 present Washington State Penitentiary (Washington Correctional Industries), Walla Walla, WA
West Virginia 1923 present Mount Olive Correctional Complex (West Virginia Correctional Industries), Mount Olive, WV
Wisconsin 1920 present Waupun Correctional Institution, Waupun, WI
Wyoming 1950 2001 Unknown (State Penitentiary, Rawlins, WY prior to 2001)

With thanks to Eric Tanner for research.

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Last update 31 May 2022.