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Female inmates help NC drivers put personality on a plate

Posted June 13, 2014

A specialty license plate that has been embossed with letters and numbers awaits a coat of blue paint at the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh.

— Mary-Helen Bullard can't help but look. When driving her car, she often admires and critiques license plates she sees from other states. She's especially jealous of the plain black and white plates because of their simplicity, but she's always in awe of the more colorful tags.

"You look and say, 'Oh man, so that's what they're doing? I bet you that's tough (to make),'" she said. "You notice things like that because you're in that business. That's how you make a living."

That business is the North Carolina Correction Enterprises Tag Plant, where Bullard is the manager. Since 2001, North Carolina's license plates have been made by female inmates from the state Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh – the only license plate plant in the nation that uses female inmates, Bullard says.

A staff of about 50 women makes about 16,000 plates a day – more than 3 million per year – at the plant off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, near downtown Raleigh. Each tag is touched at least 14 times by inmates before it is put on a vehicle.

"A large number of our inmates have never had a job, ever," said Tracey Lariviere, assistant plant manager. "These inmates really take a tremendous amount of pride in what they do and in the work that they turn out every day."

The women earn anywhere from 16 cents to 26 cents an hour, which they can use at the prison canteen to buy snacks, shampoo, stamps and other treats. The most any inmate can make, including bonuses for good work, is $13.54 a week.

Their handiwork work can be seen on more than 8.8 million vehicles across the state. But it hasn't always been a woman's job. From 1927 to 2001, male inmates at Central Prison in Raleigh produced the plates. The operation was moved to the women's prison due to space restrictions.

Then and now

An undated photo from the former North Carolina license plate plant at Central Prison in Raleigh. (Photo: N.C. Department of Transportation)

Female inmates check license plates for scratches, smudges and other imperfections as they come out of the oven at the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh in June 2014. (Photo: Kelly Hinchcliffe/WRAL)

Specialized, personalized: How do you want your plate?

In North Carolina, vehicle owners have an array of options when it comes to what tag they want tacked on their vehicle. The female inmates are able to accommodate many different styles, including personalized plates, specialty plates and tags for fire departments, cities and towns.

For an extra $30 fee, the state Division of Motor Vehicles allows drivers to personalize their plates with letters and numbers of their choosing. More than 245,000 vehicles in the state have personalized tags, but not all messages are allowed.

Rejected North Carolina license plate Sex, drugs, profanity among NC's rejected license plates

The DMV has rejected more than 6,000 personalized plate requests, such as 0HP00P, IFART and G0TBEER. Most are denied due to sex, drug and profanity references.

Drivers who want their plate to stand out even more can purchase a specialty tag to showcase their favorite school, sport, charity, club or other organization. The DMV offers more than 150 options. Two of the most popular are the Blue Ridge Parkway, which has been requested more than 24,000 times, and the Great Smoky Mountains, which has been ordered more than 19,000 times.

Specialty school plates are also popular. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill leads the way with 7,912 plates ordered, followed by North Carolina State University (5,600 plates), East Carolina (3,195), Appalachian State (3,068), University of Florida (1,991) and many others.

By the numbers: Which specialty plates are most popular?

Sort the table to see which specialty plates are most popular in North Carolina. Or, search for a specific plate. The data is current as of May 2014. (Source: N.C. Department of Transportation)

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In all, more than 286,000 vehicles in North Carolina have specialty plates. The more intricate and colorful they are, the more difficult they are to make.

"The fuller color tags are a little bit more challenging at times to run than just one with a small logo," said Lariviere, the plant's assistant manager. "It takes four colors – ribbons that are laid on top of one another – and if they are not perfectly lined up, then you'll get a little bit of a blurry look."

North Carolina license plates PHOTOS: Inside NC's license plate plant

Inmates typically make the specialty tags on Wednesdays. Using a digital printer, they transfer the designs onto 100-yard rolls of sheeting, which are then applied to aluminum and cut into 12-by-6 inch plates. The tags are placed in racks – about 3,800 to a rack – so they can cure for 48 hours before being embossed with letters and numbers.

Embossed tags are then run through a roll-coat machine that paints the letters and numbers blue. North Carolina switched from red paint back to blue in Fall 2009 after finding that the red paint did not hold up as long and that toll cameras were unable to register the red color as well as the blue.

Before being packed up and shipped out, the plates are sent through an oven to dry – a process that takes seven to nine minutes, depending on the color – and individually placed in envelopes. Throughout the entire process, the female inmates check each plate for imperfections, such as scratches and smudges.

"If we keep our scrap rate down to 1.5 percent a week, they are eligible for a 20-percent production bonus. If scrap is kept below 1 percent for the week, they get an additional 10-percent quality bonus," Lariviere said. "What we're trying to promote is attention to detail and quality."

An inmate puts license plates in an embossing machine so they can be stamped with letters and numbers at the North Carolina Correctional Institute for Women in Raleigh. (Photo: Kelly Hinchcliffe/WRAL)

Groups get visibility, profits from specialty plates

Chapel Hill resident Pete Jaeger says he noticed the quality in 2011 when he was standing in a DMV office and saw the specialty plates on display. If other groups could get their own plates, Jaeger thought, why couldn't his organization – the Virginia-Carolinas Morgan Horse Club – get one, too?

"I saw plates for 'I love tennis' ... state museums," he said. "There are plates for everything."

Jaeger researched how to get a specialty plate into production and found that he had to contact the state lawmaker who represents his area. Each plate must be approved by the General Assembly. Once that happens, the group requesting the tag has to prove that people are willing to buy at least 300 plates. If the group can't get enough support, it is put on the state's inactive license plate list.

That's where Jaeger's group ended up, his dream of having a Morgan Horse Club license plate falling short. Jaeger says he received approval from lawmakers but couldn't round up the necessary 300 supporters. The "double whammy" came, he says, when he found out the North Carolina Horse Council was also approved for a special license plate at the same time. He previously served as president of the group.

"Now, put yourself in my shoes. Who do you support?" he asked. "It certainly took the wind out of my personal sails as far as promoting it."

Jaeger says he doesn't regret the effort. Getting his plate through the General Assembly was an accomplishment in itself, he says.

"It gave me some bragging rights," he said, smiling.

While the Morgan Horse Club's plate faltered, the North Carolina Horse Council's plate was successful. To date, 355 horse council plates have been sold. Despite the group's success, executive director Sue Gray says the process was "arduous."

"You really have to be committed," she said, noting that the group spent nearly three years gathering support to buy the first 300 plates. They then had to submit a plate design to the DMV, which had to approve it.

(Photo: N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles)

Now that the plates are on the roads, the horse council reaps two benefits – visibility and a cut of the profits. For every $20 horse council plate sold, the group gets $10 "to promote and enhance the equine industry in North Carolina," according to the DMV.

"I do anticipate it making an impact," Gray said. "We plan to put it back out into grant work that we do."

For those who want a specialty plate for their group, Gray has this advice: "It can be done. Stay steady. Get your plate in front of as many people as you can. Make it as broadly desired as you can."


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  • Paul Hill Jun 13, 2014
    user avatar

    That's great they're putting personality on plates. What's being done about their recidivism? 2/3 will be back in prison in 3yrs.

  • Drew Savicki Jun 13, 2014
    user avatar

    View quoted thread

    Prison is for Rehabilitation not punishment. We have a Department of Corrections, not a Department of Punishment.

  • smalldogsrule Jun 13, 2014

    View quoted thread

    For all of those that holler
    It was the choices they made that put them in prison", while you are correct in that statement, answer me this: "What if those people have never been taught how to make right choices?

  • ohbumr Jun 13, 2014

    View quoted thread

    it's their choices that led them to prison, not mine. they deserve to be punished, not told how special they are and make sure that they know people care about them. prison should deter you from wanting to committ future crimes, but we all know it doesnt. it's an incovenient free ride.

  • JustOneGodLessThanU Jun 13, 2014

    Great idea!

  • DJ of Clayton Jun 13, 2014

    View quoted thread

    You are welcome to change places with them at any time.

  • jackaroe123 Jun 13, 2014

    Good grief. Leave it up to the majority of posters here to take a story about helping fix broken lives and talk about it from a position of spite instead.

  • Duff Dry Jun 13, 2014

    View quoted thread

    Yeah, they sure do make the big bucks! You're kidding, right? It's important work, and the most important part is teaching inmates how to work so that they are able to contribute something positive when they get out. Earning actual cash, even the tiny amount they do, is part of the process.

  • Khaleel Murphy Jun 13, 2014
    user avatar

    I. Think that's great that's not much pay but at least they get to work

  • Christopher Rose Jun 13, 2014
    user avatar

    Work is good. I think everybody needs meaningful work. And a lot of people fall down the wrong path without it. Even the wealthy. Just look at some of the trust fund babies. I have both an AT Plate, and a Blue Ridge plate. The workmanship on both are absolutely top notch. Kudos to the inmates and please pass on my thanks and complements on good work. I wish them nothing but success when they get out.