Anderson Hardwood Floors’ partnership with a South Carolina prison gives prisoners a chance to gain woodworking skills.
The scene looks like any large shop that works with hardwoods. Veneer is graded and glued; planks are cut. Employees lift and load sheets of veneer onto presses, push buttons and check the results.
Instead of jeans or khaki, however, these employees wear uniforms emblazoned with SCDC on the backs, short for South Carolina Department of Corrections. Barbed wire and guards surround their workplace. When the workday ends, they head for a cell instead of a home.
The Tyger River Correctional Institution of Enoree, SC, serves as both a prison and a factory. It is a medium-security institution that also houses an operation of Anderson Hardwood Floors, based in nearby Clinton, SC. Anderson’s operation, with 250 employees, is the largest of seven mini-factories run within the state’s prisons by corporations.
“The idea was to put inmates to work in a real-world working environment,” says Tony Ellis, the state’s director of prison industries. “They learn how to maintain production, job skills and quality control. They learn to be responsible for completing a job.
“You want to incarcerate them and let them pay whatever penalty is imposed on them by society, but you want to hopefully change the behavior that got them there in the first place,” Ellis says.
South Carolina prisoners’ participation in the federal program called PIE (Prison Industries Enhancement) is entirely voluntary, according to Ellis. The jobs are highly coveted by the inmates, he adds.
The $7- to $10-an-hour wages that Anderson pays for the inmates’ work is divvied up in several ways. Some of the pay goes to the state for room and board, some helps support prisoners’ families, a portion is earmarked for crime victim reparation and some of it is placed in savings accounts established for each of the prisoners participating in the program. Since 1996, Anderson has paid $7.3 million in wages.
An Industry Leader
In its Top 100 review of all flooring manufacturers including carpet and tile, Floor Focus magazine last May listed Anderson 48th, based on an estimated $62.7 million in 2001 sales.
Anderson does not make a commodity product, says marketing director John Woolsey. The prisoners’ craftsmanship helps the company maintain its high-quality and innovative focus, he adds, allowing Anderson to aim at the mid- to high-end of the residential market, plus some commercial flooring. Uninstalled, Anderson floors retail for an estimated $4 to $15 per square foot. Wood species include red oak, pine, maple, pecan, beech, elm and hickory.
Handcrafted product, much of it done by the prisoners, now accounts for about 20 percent of sales, Finkell says. Because inmates have the necessary time and interest. “We’re developing products to do in the prison that we couldn’t do on the outside,” he says.
A year and a half ago, Anderson introduced its Vintage Virginia series, a handcrafted, distressed look achieved by vigorous scraping with hand tools. In mid-2002 Anderson added “Time Worn,” another product with an aged look. Employees sand soft spots deeply to mimic the distinctive wear seen in historic floors. Newer still is Masterpiece, with a hand-stained and hand-rubbed finish.
A Modest Beginning
Now, with the Tyger River operation doing everything but finishing, and that scheduled to begin later this year, 60 percent of Anderson’s production goes through the prison. By the time the finishing line starts operation in August and an Anderson handcrafting operation is set up at later this year at the higher- security Allendale Correctional Institution in Fairfax, SC, Anderson’s capacity will just about triple, Finkell estimates.
At Tyger River, “they usually have 10 applicants for every job,” Finkell says. Anderson has hired six inmates upon their release. “A couple are superstars,” Finkell says. “It’s win, win, win for everyone.”
Finding Pleasure in Work
One prisoner grading veneer recently demonstrated his method, marking the best pieces “F” for face or “R” for rustic, a special Anderson product that uses knots to give an outdoorsy, mountain-lodge look. It’s easy to recognize a piece with face quality, he says as he quickly sorts the sheets. “The face kind of jumps at you.”
Grading by hand instead of machine takes more labor, Finkell says, but “we do it the old-fashioned way because we can make more decisions.” A 4-foot by 4-foot face and back and three center plies are spread with heat-activated glue and pressed together at high heat before being cut into planks.
At the prison, Anderson uses two Columbia presses to form the plywood. Each press load turns out enough to floor a good-sized house, Finkell estimates. Anderson uses a Black Bros. double-sided glue spreader and Borden glue. Other equipment includes Weinig moulders, Mereen-Johnson ripsaws and a Greenlee double-end tenoner.
By August 2003, Anderson will be operating an automated finish line at the prison in a new $1 million, 50,000-square-foot building built by the state and leased by the company. It will have DuBois flat-line finishing equipment including roll coaters, UV lights, a UV oven, a stain machine and sanders, plus a Costa sander. Anderson has long collaborated with Valspar in the development of urethane finishes containing aluminum oxide particles for durability, and its Virginia Vintage and Time Worn finishes are guaranteed for 25 years.
Including the new handcrafting operation at Allendale, Anderson will have 300 employees and a $5 million investment in South Carolina’s prisons by the end of the year. That does not include lease payments on the finish-line building for the next 10 years.
In addition, Anderson currently employs 300 people at its two non-prison plants: a Walterboro, SC, operation where veneer is cut from logs, and its headquarters plant in Clinton, which makes and finishes flooring.
The availability of the prison labor gives Anderson flexibility in scheduling. The Clinton plant is currently running one shift, six days a week and 10 hours a day. If business should slow, hours would be cut at the prison rather than employees being laid off at the plant.
Because the jobs contribute to their self-esteem, they mean considerably more to the prisoners than the hourly wage Anderson pays for their labor. One prisoner who helped plan the program seven years ago told Finkell, “The thing you feel in prison is that your time there counts for nothing.” The opportunity to learn a trade changes all that for many of the prisoners, Finkell adds.
Prisoners also know that if they do a good job inside prison walls, a job would be waiting for them on the outside. The only prisoners Anderson will not consider hiring are those Finkell fears might be a threat to society, including those convicted of serious sexual crimes. As for the others, “We don’t know anything about their crimes or their sentences. And we don’t want to know,” Finkell says.
Before Anderson began its first prison factory, Finkell says he had questions about whether his customers would accept it. He visited them to introduce it, and now leads them on prison tours about eight times a year.
Customers have been uniformly pleased, Finkell says. Like Anderson executives, the customers see the benefits of giving those repaying a debt to society a chance to learn a trade.
A First Paycheck
He adds that he considers the company fortunate as well. The prison program, he recalls, grew “out of desperation.” In the early 1990s, Anderson’s sales had grown to the point where it was forced to run more than one shift at its Clinton plant. Filling the second shift presented all sorts of employment-related problems including absenteeism, drugs and alcohol. By contrast, he says, inmates are screened for drugs and alcohol. “We’ve never even had anybody late, much less absent. We’ve never had a lost-time accident.”
Less than a dozen people have been kicked out of the program, Finkell adds. “These guys learned it, took to it and have been really enthusiastic. It didn’t take us too long to figure out it was going to work. I quickly decided I was in there for keeps.”
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