Have you ever wondered who makes these large road signs?



American drivers pass a number of road signs on the way home, pointing them in the right direction and warning them to beware. Few people think about where the signs came from, but Marketplace listeners Krisha Chiu from Snoqualmie, Washington, and Kellen McGuire from Los Angeles did. They asked Marketplace to find out.

The answer varies a bit from state to state, but in many cases all roads lead to jail. Many American road signs are made by inmates.

One of the largest sign manufacturing plants is located at the Franklin Correctional Center, a medium security prison east of Raleigh, North Carolina. Accessing it requires cleaning several layers of fences topped with coiled razor wire, handing over cellphones, keys and more, all in plain view of many pragmatic guards on patrol and stationed in a watchtower.

Inside, the space is a crossroads of different activities. In one area, an inmate runs a square piece of metal through a heavy-duty machine, cutting each corner to form the familiar octagonal shape of a stop sign. The first thing many visitors notice is the actual size of the signs. They don’t look that huge from the driver’s seat.

Interstate signs are just gigantic, like movie screens. On a recent visit, a crane hoisted an exit sign high in the air for inspection. A worker shines the spotlight and watches carefully, checking for errors, damage or defects. Reflectivity is crucial so that motorists can read the sign in all weather conditions, day and night. The sign passes, meaning it will be dispatched and will soon direct drivers looking for I-40 East to Greensboro.

Another striking thing about the factory is what the prisoners work with, including sharp utility knives and power tools. These are tools, but could also be lethal weapons. And some of the inmates are convicted murderers. But there is little tension on the factory floor, although the inmates work closely under the supervision of state employees. Many inmates have violent histories, but the men here have enough history of good behavior to have gone from maximum security to medium security. And they also need a perfectly clean file for at least six months. Jobs are in demand, so standards are high.

“They want a job and they haven’t committed any offense to get the job done,” said Phil Rowe, a civilian who oversees this factory and other facilities for Correction Enterprises, the North Carolina prison labor agency. .

With over $ 95 million in annual sales and thousands of inmates on the job, it’s one of the largest state prison labor operations in America. Its leaders are quick to point out that it operates without taxpayer money, financing its budget by selling its products.

Like that train whistle Johnny Cash sang, the traffic signs remind inmates of the world beyond the Walls. When they imagine what it would be like to actually see their creations, they often talk about wanting to take their grandchildren to see the signs they made.

“It makes me proud,” said inmate Odell Blue. “Making these signs lets others know where to go so they don’t get lost. “

There is pride in creating these signs, but little money. Twenty-six cents an hour is the highest wage.

Research shows that vocational training as prisoners arrive here makes them more likely to find work and less likely to fall back into crime. But prison work remains controversial because it pays low wages and risks crowding out private companies that have to offer wages on the open market.

During a break from work and away from the noise of the factory, inmate Stephon Goode spoke about the kind of work he could get outside with his new skills and what it would be like to drive next to a sign he made.

“You see something you’ve been part of and it’ll give you a good impression,” Goode imagined. “Until I do, I can’t really say how I’ll feel. But I know it will be a good feeling, though.

He has already been sentenced to death for first degree murder. A judge saved his life, ruling that Goode had an ineffective lawyer. But he still faces life imprisonment.

“You stay in the courts, you fight and try to do your best to make this time pass,” Goode said. “I don’t see myself doing it all this time, but hopefully we can see myself in the next five years, watching the signs.”

The next time you walk past one of these signs, think about who made it. They may not see it for a long time.


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