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Inmates Produce Thousands Of New License Plates

South Dakota drivers get new license plates starting in January, and inmates at the state penitentiary are making them. The current design is a decade old, and state officials want to update them because of aging and concerns about their reflectivity. Prisoners started producing license plates in 1929. Now current inmates are preparing to make 1.5 million plates for 2016.

Authorized visitors don badges and body alarms at the South Dakota State Penitentiary. Razor wire lines fences on the walk to the Pheasant Industries building where another security checkpoint stands. Down the hall, the din of machines filters through a metal gate that runs to the ceiling. This is where all of South Dakota’s license plates originate.

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Credit Kealey Bultena / SDPB
License plate machinery at the Pheasant Industries building at the South Dakota State Penitentiary

Foreman Pat Gacke says the process starts with huge spools of metal sheeting. He says a machine transfers the design onto the metal, which is rewound and applied to aluminum.

"From there it is moved towards the press – and when I say blanking, I mean the press is punching the license plates and the holes, and the inmates are receiving those, pairing them together for the auto plates, and putting them back on the rack," Gacke says. "At that time, that rack is taken over to the bagging system where we bag and box and get ready for shipment to the distribution area."

Some plates are the new 2016 design for vehicles; another run makes red-and-white trailer plates.

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Credit Kealey Bultena / SDPB
An inmate stacks sets of license plates in the shop at the South Dakota State Penitentiary.

Crew members wear khaki pants and shirts, with "INMATE" stamped on their clothes. From 7:30 a.m. until 3 p.m., 18 workers who are medium- to high-risk prisoners run machines and stack license plates. Gacke says inmates gain manufacturing skills at a rate of 25 cents an hour.

"You get a lot of that too much work for the money they get paid, but then you have ones that really take pride in their work and want to do their best and the pay really doesn’t matter," Gacke says. "They’re here for the job. They’re here to have eight hours out of their cell, so that they have pretty much a normal day even though their environment here is the prison."

Gacke says despite security and an inmate crew, the license plate shop operates as a typical workplace. He says the inmates respect his authority and their work as they produce up to 23,000 license plates each day.