LEBANON (AP) -- Amid the rush and rattle of Ohio's tag shop, inmates at Lebanon Correctional Institution are meeting the state's growing demand for special license plates that spotlight hundreds of causes and special interests.
It's as easy today to write a new plate design into the law as to name a bridge or christen a highway. Digitally imprinted designs made available within the past decade are printed and adhered to flat plates that can feature hundreds of different logos, eliminating the more labor-intensive metal stamping required for traditional plates.
Ohio's use of prison labor to produce its plates combines with technology from 3M introduced in 2002 to make the incremental cost of adding each new design minimal.
"We're expecting to be up to 250 different logos by next year," said Tom Williams, a manager at the Lebanon tag shop, one of the nation's largest and oldest prison license plate operations. The shop produced more than 158,000 flat plates for Ohio vehicles in 2011, still a fraction of the statewide total.
Such plates are most prevalent in a handful of populous, politically attuned East Coast states. New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia -- and now Ohio -- offer more than 200 specialty plates each, while Maryland offers more than 700, according to the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures.
Ohio's specialty plates shout Ohio dog- or cat-friendly. They spread breast cancer or autism awareness. They embrace Ohio's scenic rivers, rock formations or state parks. They plug Superman or urge "Choose Life." Some dozen new license plate bills were introduced at the Ohio Statehouse this year.
Manufacturing license plates is an earned privilege for Lebanon inmates, said warden Ernie Moore. They must have a clean disciplinary record and solid work habits to hold a job in the shop, which pays between $23 and $80 a month -- compared to the average of $17 a month among inmates.
"You've got to be on your best behavior to get a job down there," Moore said. "We only let them if they are bought into rehabilitation and bought into changing their lives and making themselves better while they're in incarceration."
Moore conceded that it's much less expensive for Ohio to produce license plates using inmates than it would be for a civilian workforce, even one making minimum wage.
"In today's society, I think if a state tried to do this from scratch, you might get some feedback from people who are currently doing the work, those thinking inmates are taking their jobs," he said. "But Ohio's done it this way since the 1950s. It's really a great re-entry tool for us. There are significant benefits to the inmates."
Inmate Francis Russell, a 22-year-old serving 12 years for involuntary manslaughter, is among those who landed one of about 208 inmate positions in the tag shop, warehouse and validation operations. He works a 6.5-hour day, shorter than a civilian day to allow time for daily inmate counts.
Russell said he hopes his work in the specialty plate shop will provide him marketable skills when he leaves prison.
"I've had a lot of training so when I get out onto the streets, and if they hire felons, I'd already know how to run the equipment," he said.