Murderers making their own prison bars - 13 WTHR Indianapolis

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Murderers making their own prison bars

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Inmate and convicted killer Arlin Johnson uses a torch to cut through old cell bars at Indiana State Prison Inmate and convicted killer Arlin Johnson uses a torch to cut through old cell bars at Indiana State Prison
A group of inmates assembles steel bars into a new door for a prison cell. A group of inmates assembles steel bars into a new door for a prison cell.
Drug dealer Maceo Neal sits in a new cell he helped to make. Drug dealer Maceo Neal sits in a new cell he helped to make.
Superintendent Mark Levenhagen says the inmate project will save Indiana taxpayers about $15 million. Superintendent Mark Levenhagen says the inmate project will save Indiana taxpayers about $15 million.
Prison officials say some existing cells have bent bars and doors that don’t close or lock. Prison officials say some existing cells have bent bars and doors that don’t close or lock.

Bob Segall/13 Investigates

Michigan City - You've probably heard of prison inmates making license plates. But at Indiana State Prison, they're making something different -- very different. 13 Investigates takes you inside the maximum security prison to show you what murderers, rapists and other convicted criminals are allowed to make. Prison officials say what these inmates are doing has never been done before.

Abraham Lincoln was president of the United States when Indiana State Prison opened in 1860.

It's not only Indiana's oldest prison. ISP is also considered one of the toughest. Home to Indiana's death row, ISP houses more than 2,200 inmates and 70 percent of them are behind bars for committing murder.

The maximum-security prison in Michigan City, Indiana, is now being ripped apart – literally – thanks to its inmates.

Prisoners building bars for their own cells

Prison officials have equipped convicted murderers, rapists and drug dealers with crow bars, sledge hammers and blow torches. The inmates have been asked to tear out all of the prison's 80-year-old prison cells to make way for new ones.

"We pretty much have no choice," says ISP Superintendent Mark Levenhagen. "The doors don't close. They don't lock like they're supposed to. A lot of the metal had been bent over the years. The offenders figure out ways to get the bars bent, so they're not providing the security that they should.”

But the inmates aren't simply dismantling the old prison bars.

They are also making and installing the new ones.

It's no typo.

13 Investigates has discovered inmates are making their own maximum-security prison cells in what prison officials call the first project of its kind anywhere in the world.

"Yeah, I'm locking myself in," said Arlin Johnson, a convicted murderer from Valparaiso. "Anything beats sitting in that little tiny room. That room would drive you nuts after a while, so I’m glad to get out and work."

On the day WTHR visited ISP, Johnson was using a steel-cutting blow torch to remove prison bars in Cell Block A. About 100 yards away in the prison's metal shop, murderers James Campbell and Mike Capone were cutting and welding together new steel bars that will replace the old ones. Maceo Neal, a convicted cocaine dealer, carefully measured the bars to ensure quality control.

Among all the steel is plenty of irony, and the inmates know it.

Keeping inmates busy

"It's crazy. Really crazy,” said Neal, sentenced to forty years behind bars for his drug crime. "At first, there was mixed reaction like 'do you really want to be a part of that, locking your own self in more.?' But either way, there’s going to be bars on your doors – either the old ones or the news ones – so you might as well. It gives me something to do, takes my mind off things."

Prison officials say that's the idea: to keep these inmates busy and teach them some job skills.

The inmates work from 6:00 am to 2:00 pm at a prison factory operated by PEN Products, an Indiana Department of Correction job training program that utilizes inmate labor to make everything from cleaning products to office furniture.

The PEN Products metal shop gives inmates access to state-of-the-art machinery. And through the prison cell project, it also gives them access to crowbars, sledge hammers, torches and tons of steel pipe.

Is that really a good idea?

Close monitoring

"At the surface you're thinking 'that doesn't sound like a very secure thing to do, if the inmates are building their own cells, then they're obviously going to build them in a way that they can get out of them,' and that's just not the case," said Levenhagen.

The superintendent says inmate workers are closely monitored throughout the day and, at all times, they remain confined within multiple layers of fences, locked gates and razor wire.

And while inmates make the entire front cell frame, including the bars and door, there are some things they cannot do.

"They're doing the grunt work and they're doing some actual skilled labor, as well, but they don't have anything to do with installing the locking mechanism that keeps them in the cell," Levenhagen explained.

The locks are installed by outside contractors. Everything else, however, is done by prisoners, and that is saving a lot of money.

Saving money

This kind of work in a maximum security prison would bring up to $40 per hour for a professional contractor. Inmates get paid $4 per day (50 cents per hour).

"We got a bid for the work and it was $19.5 million," said Kevin Orme, construction services director for the Indiana Department of Correction. "I was not going to go ask the legislature for $19.5 million for this job. As a taxpayer, it made no sense. Doing this with offenders, we'll finish it for under $4 million."

The inmates say they're not in this for the money.

"It's just the satisfaction of doing a good job. I like to work," Johnson said.

In the past twelve months, ISP inmates made and installed 300 new prison cells – most of them in Cell Block B. They have more than 1,000 additional cells awaiting replacement in ISP's four other cell houses, which means the work will take years to finish.

But if there's one thing the inmates have, it's time.

Neal is eligible for release in 2026. Until then, he'll be sleeping behind bars he helped to make.

"Those bars, they hold you," Neal said from inside his cell. "They're doing they're job. I can say that."

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