S.C. inmates work for public, private sectors

More than TimeBy Liz Segrist
Published Feb. 18, 2014
From the Jan. 27, 2014 print edition

Four days a week, John works in the Sign Shop producing road signs for the state.

The 25,000-square-foot facility in Columbia where he works looks like many other manufacturing operations around the state, and John looks like any other employee, but the shop sits on the grounds of the Broad River Correctional Institution where John has been an inmate for nearly 40 years.

The state’s Corrections Department runs a program called Prison Industries that employs and trains inmates. Depending on the division, some inmates produce goods for the state and work for free, and others produce goods for both private and public sectors and earn wages. Those wages go to the victim’s family, the inmate’s family, room and board, taxes and an inmate savings account.

Inmates employed through the Prison Industries programs build desks and chairs for the state’s school districts and city, county and state offices. They design and manufacture the signs that direct residents and visitors traveling the state’s roads and highways.

Some frame diplomas or paintings for the public. Some produce bedding and clothing for prisons around the state. Others work for private industry, rebuilding transmissions for Caterpillar, refurbishing golf carts for King of Carts or separating tree seedlings for ArborGen, to name a few.

Prison Industries operations are run out of prisons around the state, though most are currently concentrated in the Midlands. Roughly 1,300 male and female inmates are working in Prison Industries currently, accounting for roughly 10% of the state’s prison population. Around 300 inmates are on the waiting list hoping to secure a job.

A division of Prison Industries enables private companies to set up shop in facilities on prison grounds and employ inmates. King of Carts employs 15 inmates who produce golf carts in Columbia. (Photo by Liz Segrist)
“Mark” designs a sign for a park in his office within a Columbia prison.
“Mark” designs a sign for a park in his office within a Columbia prison.

The inmates interviewed for this story declined to disclose their crimes or the time remaining on their sentences. Their names have been changed, and their faces aren’t visible in photographs at the request of the Corrections Department to protect their privacy, as well as the privacy of their families and victims.

“If I’m using my mind and my hands to create these signs, I’m not bored and I’m not fighting,” John said. “I’m learning. I’m rehabbing myself. I’m changing.”

The Broad River Correctional Institution in Columbia operates like a small city, housing 13,000 inmates that never set foot past the 30-foot-tall fence covered in coils of razor wire. The dormitories, cafeteria, basketball court, outdoor space and Prison Industries’ facilities are spread out across the grounds.

Most inmates wear green and brown jumpsuits, but inmates who have committed a sexual offense while in prison wear hot pink jumpsuits. Inside, alarms buzz every time a door opens. Inmates peer out from their cells, surveying the narrow hallways through the bars. Some walk around the grounds.

“The biggest problem with prison is that people have nothing to do all day but sit in a cell, stare at the wall or get in a fight,” John said.

Incarcerated in the 1970s, John has spent much of his life at the Broad River Correctional Institution. His world exists within the prison walls. For the past six years, John has worked in the Sign Shop, where he cuts large pieces of metal into signs for the state’s highway system.

“This keeps me busy and gives me something I didn’t have before,” John said. “Working gives me some purpose.”

Rehabilitation efforts
The Prison Industries program aims to rehabilitate inmates, reduce trouble within the prisons and equip those who will be released with marketable skills.

Phil Burckhalter said the state’s overall recidivism rate is 27%. From 2007 to 2012, the rate within Prison Industries was 19%. Burckhalter has worked for the Corrections Department for 25 years, and he runs the Prison Industries program.

“Some of them don’t have a family to go back to or any means to go back into the community, so we’re giving them the means to walk out with a few hundred dollars to hold them over and some skills to find a new job,” Burckhalter said.

Prison Industries has three divisions. Inmates in the traditional program work for free and manufacture products such as desks, bookcases and office seating. The goods are sold to state, county and municipal offices, as well as school districts. The traditional program’s revenue helps fund the Prison Industries’ budget.

Inmates in the service program rebuild, refurbish, fix or sort products for both public and private sector customers. They earn between 35 cents and $1.80 per hour.

For the Prison Industry Enterprise program, inmates earn minimum wage, around $7.25 an hour in South Carolina, producing goods for private industries that operate out of facilities at the prison.

For this program, taxes, victim compensation, room and board, and family support are all deducted from their gross pay. The remaining money goes into a savings account for use when — and if — they are released.

Each program has different eligibility criteria for inmates. Generally, inmates must have an incident-free record for at least a year. Anyone with an escape attempt on their record will not be considered at all.

An inmate’s prison term or conviction does not influence whether they can work. Inmates working in Prison Industries could have been convicted of drug possession, murder, larceny, embezzlement, forgery or sexual assault, for example.

“Understand, many of these guys came in here with nothing. There’s been no structure, discipline, regimentation or authority in their life,” Burckhalter said. “They hear on the street that they don’t want to work a 9 to 5, but they come here and see that they can create something and see something through from start to finish ... you can see changes in them on a daily basis.”

Company recruitment
The Prison Industries program has received some criticism that it takes work from residents and gives it to those who have committed crimes. Prison Industries’ Operations Manager Jeneann Adams said the program is careful not to do so. If a company is unable to find qualified workers in a county or is considering taking jobs overseas, Adams will then recruit the work for inmates.

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“We’re running a business here, too,” said Adams, who has been working with the prison system for 23 years. Some of the revenue from the programs funds Prison Industries’ operations, which receives no state money.

Columbia-based King of Carts is one of the private industries to employ inmates at the Broad River Correctional Institution. King of Carts is a wholesale distributor of rebuilt golf carts and a golf cart dealer for Club Car and Yamaha.

Fifteen inmates work in the 30,000-square-foot King of Carts facility. Each wears an off-white shirt with “SCDC,” for the S.C. Department of Corrections, printed in large, black letters on the back.

Joe, an inmate since the 1970s, started refurbishing the golf carts when the facility opened a year ago. Joe has had nearly 20 years of experience working for different Prison Industries’ programs. For King of Carts, he serves as the floor foreman.

“This occupies my mind and my hands,” Joe said. “I’m invested in each cart. I’m invested in this work. I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize my job. It’s my only means of income for my family.”

Some of the inmates reassemble the golf carts as they enter the facility. Others add custom leather seating or lights to the carts. Mechanics work on the engines, batteries and wiring. Inmates check the carts before they are delivered to country clubs, golf courses or golf cart communities around the state. Some sell for $9,000.

Bob Van Vollenhoven, King of Carts co-founder and co-owner, oversees the operations at the prison four days a week. He said the inmates have a strong work ethic.

“When I walk in the door, I am able to focus on something else besides the daily grind. The stress of the dorm isn’t on me anymore. In here, I have a job to do,” said Martin, an inmate that works as a mechanic for King of Carts. “In here, I earn money that I can send home.”

Working a ‘9 to 5’
Outside of the prison’s security gates and fences, some prisoners work down the street at the Prison Industries’ headquarters in Columbia, like the three inmates that frame photos, diplomas or artwork for the public in the Frame Shop.

Sam cuts the glass for a custom order and moves to a paper cutter, ensuring the matting has the correct dimensions for the frame.

“Up here, we get to interact with normal people. That makes such a huge difference,” Sam said. “I love seeing the different pieces of work that come in and working with the customer to make something different for each one. We’re creating in here.”

Back in the prison, 32 inmates create signs in the Sign Shop. They generate $1.2 million and $1.4 million in annual revenue from road signs and license plates, respectively, said Manager Lawrence Thompson, who works for the state.

Inmates Mark and Ron are responsible for creating the designs for each sign. Mark graduated from the College of Charleston and has experience with marketing and graphic design.

“There aren’t many programs for inmates to rehab themselves, but there needs to be,” Mark said. “In here, we stay out of trouble, and we get to learn a new career.”

In their office, they each have a desk and computer. Shelves are filled with books, posters and license plates. It looks similar to many offices, but this office lacks Internet access, and security guards watch over the employees.

Mark and Ron showcase signs they have created for Folly Beach, Mount Pleasant and Charleston County. They talk about being employable or starting a business in the future. Neither one talks of the past, their convictions or their sentence lengths.

“This gives me a foundation to build on,” Ron said. “It gives me something to hold onto. It gives me a reason to try.”

Reach Liz Segrist at 843-849-3119 or @lizsegrist on Twitter.

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