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Local business owner takes a chance on work-release inmates

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A work release inmate at Penco on Oct. 16, 2018. (Molly Mathis/The Daily Reflector)

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By Tyler Stocks
The Daily Reflector

Monday, October 22, 2018

When the head of Penco Products in Greenville pitched the idea of hiring inmates to work at his company's manufacturing facility in Hamilton, the senior leadership team balked.

“I raised the idea of hiring incarcerated felons with Penco’s senior leadership team and the idea was met with a dose of healthy skepticism,” said Tom Kulikowski, company president. “I explained that we needed to tap into a new pool of potential workers, particularly for the upcoming busy summer season as our traditional pools of workers were drying up.”

The new hiring approach had its roots in an earlier encounter. Kulikowski said that In early May, he was meeting with a customer — John McLaughlin  — at Lockers Unlimited, in Charlotte.

“Two days per week, John teaches a course on creating a business plan to inmates at Catawba Prison,” Kulikowski said. “As I shared with him the challenges of hiring employees for manufacturing jobs in a rural location, he encouraged me to consider inmates on work release.”

On his drive back from Charlotte, Kulikowsi pondered Mclaughlin's suggestion and resolved to give it a try.

After his team reluctantly agreed to go along with the idea, Penco contacted the North Carolina Department of Public Safety about the work-release program with Caledonia Correctional Institution.

The company was approved for the program over the summer, and all plant supervisors and managers received two hours of comprehensive training from prison administration. Penco plant employees were provided training on the do’s and don’ts of interacting with work-release inmates and given the opportunity to ask questions. Employee support was overwhelmingly positive, Kulikowski said.

From building lockers — which requires spot welding of parts — to painting, installing and riveting doors, inmates gain many valuable skills that will allow them to pursue careers in manufacturing and other industries, Kulikowski said.  

One work-release employee, Terrance Rhodes, 35, who works on the assembly line, said he is thankful to be given a chance to move forward and not live in the shadow of his past mistakes. 

“A lot of us don't get second chances out there, so (we appreciate) being able to have a chance before we get out,” Rhodes said. “Everybody makes mistakes and just because a person makes mistakes doesn't mean they're a bad person or that they're worse than the next man.” 

Derrick Lewis, 33, said that when he began working at Penco, he and other fellow inmates got no special treatment.

“The company let us know up front there will be no exceptions because of our situation,” Lewis said. They're going to treat us just like any other employee.

“A lot of times when you are in the position we are in, we can be swayed one way or another good or bad,” Lewis said. “Every day I come in it not only lets me know I'm going on the right path, but it creates an opportunity for me to better myself morally, better my values, think about the things that are important (and) work on my communication skills.

“One thing I can appreciate about Penco so far is they're willing to take a chance,” he said. “They are willing to open the door for you.”

Staying on the right path 

Lewis said prison has taught him that it’s possible to do something positive with your life if you’re willing to take responsibility. 

“If you can continue to do what you're supposed to do, eventually, your light is going to shine,” he said. “From waking up every morning to when we get to work is a responsibility. All around you learn a lot. This is about constantly improving. Being able to deal with people correctly, being able to make decisions, being able to think things through instead of making decisions irrationally.

“There's opportunity out there,” Lewis said. “If there's not, sometimes, you have to take the extra step and create it. Some of the things we take for granted you have some people praying for. You have to be willing to take the extra step and sometimes make that sacrifice to get where you want to be or where you need to be.”

James Vaughan, an administrator at Caledonia, said that after a person spends decades of their lives behind bars, it takes a toll. 

“Some of these guys don't know how to interview for a job, how to conduct themselves while at a job, or do simple things like use a debit card, pump gas and pay for it,” Vaughan said. “Our goal is to help them learn these basic skills.  The more they learn, the better they are. We want inmates to be productive citizens. 

Vaughan added that several educational and vocational training programs are available to help inmates gain skills needed to successfully transition back into society.

Penco is one of many companies that hires work-release inmates, he said. The main goal is to try to make sure inmates learn a skill.

Some of the other companies include Perdue, East Industries, Weyerhauser and Josey Lumber and QSI. 

While in prison, inmates have an account that their earnings are held in. Vaughan said the goal is for them to have a nest egg when they get out so they can start a new life and have the financial resources to do so. 

“They put their money aside in their account to give them a good start and reduce recidivism,” he said. “Hopefully, they can buy a car, get an apartment, help their family out so they won't come back to prison. When an inmate comes back to prison, they cost taxpayers.”

But out of their earnings, inmates do have bills to pay.  

Richard Duke, an administrator at Caledonia said that inmates on work release must pay for room and board while incarcerated and for transportation to and from the work site, among other things.

“It's not like the inmates can come out here and Penco pays them and that's all money they can bank and the state is paying for everything else,” Duke said. “They pay for their transportation to and from here, which comes out to about $11 a day and that comes out of their check. They pay any restitution along with room and board. 

The salary also allows inmates to help their families back at home.

“A lot of guys like the program because they've got children in school that needs school supplies or they may have a mother who has health problems,” Duke said. “They're always sending money from their earnings to help with light bills, different things that might come up.”

During the summer months, inmates working at Penco can bring in $600-700 per week.  Duke said that helps motivate them to keep themselves on the right path. 

Kulikowsi added that Penco hires dozens of temporary workers and that many of them eventually become regular workers due to their performance. 

“The inmates that have been working with us have been model employees, each with a strong work ethic,”  Kulikowsi said. “They have won over any skeptics. A few supervisors were initially reluctant to take inmates into their work groups but now they are ardent supporters, eager to add them to their teams.

“We have kept all of our work release inmates on after the summer season and plan to keep them employed,” he said. “We started with nine work release inmates and have had as many as 12. A couple of these inmates were recently released from prison and we have extended to them the opportunity to come back as regular employees.” 

For Kulikowski, hiring inmates is a chance to help others who simply made a bad decision.  

“Who among us hasn’t made a mistake in their life?” Kulikowski asked. “Maybe not to the magnitude of these men but I believe that people deserve a second chance.  I hope that more businesses are inspired to provide felons that much needed a second chance. Our experience is they will help dispel stereotypes and change your beliefs while exceeding your expectations.”

Lewis echoed that thought.

“I've learned over the years to turn my stumbling blocks into stepping stones,” he said. “If you can get over hurdles and set goals for yourself, you're going to be all right. You're going to make it. If you don't set goals and you don't have anything to look forward to, you're not going to get too far.

“A lot of people think that when they get into a situation like this that it's over for them. And it doesn't have to be,” he said.

Contact Tyler Stocks at tstocks@reflector.com or 252-329-9566. Follow him on Twitter @TylerstocksGDR

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