No place to hide

Imagine a captive market of more than 2 million people for an innovative product you've patented.

That's how Richard Fraige, president of Vinyl Products Inc. in Mound House sees the U.S. prison system.

His product is a radical new mattress design for the institutional mattress market prisons, jails and juvenile detention centers.

It's a natural next step for the company that began making waterbed mattresses to meet the demands of 1970s-era consumers.

The main selling point of the prison mattress is a tough, clear vinyl cover with welded seams that solves the problem of inmates hiding contraband in their beds.

"What we're offering is a longer life, easier inspection and a safer environment," says Fraige.

Given standard mattresses, prisoners can carefully undo the stitches, stash contraband inside, then restitch the seam. And that makes a good hiding place for weapons or drugs.

In contrast, Vinyl Products' hermetically-sealed security mattress has no sewn seams and one very small air vent. It comes in two styles, foam or fiber.

Security staffers like the mattresses because they can see through the covering, says Fraige. It's easier to see if someone has breached the cover to jam something into the stuffing, and cell inspections go faster.

Another of the company's products, an air mattress, is so popular with prisoners, says Fraige, that they purchase it for themselves at prison commissaries.

The company's 40,000-square-foot-facility at Mound House employs between 50 and 100, depending on workload. Will sales of the new design prompt additional hiring?

"That depends on how sales go," says Fraige. "Predicting growth works better in hindsight."

The plant has developed custom tooling and machinery and developed custom materials to make waterbeds.

"We write our prescription for the vinyl we produce, to specify the bacterial, and fungal resistant characteristics," says Fraige.

In addition to the Mound House location, manufacturing is handled by the prison industries program at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City.

The U.S. prison market is a big nut to crack. So Vinyl Products buys phone lists for sales calls. After about two years of selling, Fraige says about 200 prisons, jails and juvenile halls are using the security mattress.

His sales pitch: Vinyl Products uses thicker plastic for its mattresses, which are waterproof. Competing products usually are merely moisture resistant.

The company says its mattresses last three to five years, more than twice that of competitors.

The life span of a mattress, Fraige explains, is shortened by sweat and other bodily fluids secreted by the people who sleep on them. In homes, a mattress pad protects the vinyl. But prisons do not always issue mattress pads because they could be used by inmates for all manner of mischief.

Fraige, who holds a patent on the clear mattress concept, says, "This is so revolutionary it will become the mainstay of the institutional industry. It's the breakthrough."

He also holds 12 patents on waterbed mattress technology, and licensed the ideas to other manufacturers.

The two basic patents are for a method of manufacturing seaming to minimize leakage, and for a fiber-filled water mattress to reduce wave motion.

Still, the prison mattress market is too big for one manufacturer to supply. As with the market for waterbeds, licensing is in order.

"Other people will be forced to adopt what we do to maintain some market share, or else infringe on our patent," says Fraige.

As he learned in the waterbed business, licensing is the answer for the inevitable infringement of the patented process.


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