Sandra Jenkins spoke with the passion of an evangelist as she described how the Kings Mountain textile company where she serves as human resources director has found relief in its labor shortages by hiring men incarcerated at the local prison.
“It’s way more than just having employees,” she says. “It’s about making an impact.”
In 2019, STI Fabrics hired its first four inmates serving out a sentence in the minimum security prison in Gaston County, just west of Charlotte. The company was looking for employees more than just cheap labor, and committed itself to starting the incarcerated inmates out at the same $15 an hour wage as other entry-level workers, she says.
Jenkins told her company’s story Friday to about 75 other manufacturing managers attending the two-day Manufacturing Conference sponsored by Business North Carolina and North Carolina Manufacturing Extension Partnership in Winston-Salem. The conference attracted hundreds of manufacturers from across the state.
The process was not easy and there were a lot of hoops to jump through, says Jenkins, but the program has proved worthwhile, even if it had some internal early doubters.
Jenkins has now hired a total of 72 inmates to work at the plant, including 22 current inmates working there now. The company has about 250 employees total, and some of those inmates have stayed with the company after their release. An inmate in minimum security must be within five years of their potential release date.
The workers serving sentences stick out on the manufacturing floor. They must wear the prison-issued green pants even on the job, Jenkins says. Early on, a veteran female employee asked Jenkins why she was bringing in workers from the prison. Jenkins asked the woman to give the program a chance, adding that she told her if she ever felt uncomfortable working so close with an inmate to let her know.
Two weeks later, the woman came to Jenkins and asked if she could share some food with the inmate she was training, describing him as polite and dedicated to learning the job.
“They have more to lose than the ones who can wear jeans to work,” Jenkins told the group.
Some of the inmates who have worked at STI Textiles are in prison for murder, a few are sex offenders. STI takes precautions to keep inmates away from some of its part-time workers who are high school students.
STI Textiles also follows the rules, which includes that inmates cannot use tobacco products, alcohol or drugs, cannot have cash and cannot form intimate relationships with coworkers. Jenkins told the story of an inmate asking a supervisor for a cigarette, and told the group that was his last day on the job. Of the 72 inmates she’s hired to work, only on three occasions has she had to have the bus return to pick an inmate up.
Many inmates have prison jobs, including farm work, cooking and sewing operations. Those inmates are paid less than $1 an hour for their labor, under state law. With those low wages, inmates cannot pay child support, support their families or pay restitution, Jenkins says.
North Carolina released almost 19,000 people from prison last year, while the prison population hovers at about 30,000.
“We want to give these guys a real future,” says Jenkins.