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Making tags is part of doing time

Sidebar by Ed Quillen

License Plates – March 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

You don’t want a job making license plates in Colorado. By state law, Colorado license plates are manufactured in only one place — a factory staffed by inmates at the Old Max prison in Cañon City. Another factory in the prison complex makes the annual renewal stickers that go on the plates.

Dennis Dunsmoor is in charge of those two factories, part of the state’s Correctional Industries Program. He explained that standard license plates begin as two rolls — one is a roll of aluminum, the other a roll of special reflective material.

The aluminum is unrolled, then gets the numbers painted on. Then it meets the reflective material in a press that unites the two while stamping the characters and cutting out the plate under about 100 tons of pressure.

“That’s the tricky part,” Dunsmoor said, “getting everything aligned for those dies.”

The license-plate factory produces 2 million plates in a typical year, he said, and employs about 70 inmates, with another 40 working in the sticker shop.

“I can’t say this provides much in the way of useful job skills for when they get out,” he said. “It does teach some good general work habits like showing up on time and doing what you’re told, but making license plates is pretty much unskilled industrial labor.”

Wages are low — he wouldn’t say how low, but said 35¢ an hour is on the high side — but “it’s a clean, safe shop. There are inspections and safety regulations we have to follow.”

Some states use their prison factories to make license plates for other states. Dunsmoor said “we’re not doing that now, but we have done it for other states, usually when the other state gets in a jam.” And other states have gone to private contractors to produce the plates.

In Colorado, “the state law has specifically assigned license plates to the correctional system since 1926,” Dunsmoor said.

“But that could change. It’s happened in other states where Corrections forgot that it was supposed to be serving the state. We try to run like an enterprise that has a customer, the Department of Motor Vehicles, and make sure the Department gets what it orders when it’s supposed to get it.”

Dunsmoor said Motor Vehicles tells Corrections how many plates it anticipates it will need in the next few months, and Corrections produces the plates.

“Like any manufacturing operation, it can be challenging to schedule your production runs — standard passenger, truck plates, custom plates (which aren’t stamped) — to meet your customers’ needs while you’re still keeping your costs in line.”

Every so often, you run across a newspaper item about a license plate that says “HELPME” or has a note that says “I’m being held here against my will.” Has that ever happened in Colorado?

“I don’t know of any instances, but I’m not going to say it’s never happened. We produce up to 20,000 plates a day here, and we can’t hand-inspect each one of them. I can say that if it does happen, it doesn’t happen very often.”