That’s how my week has been. I use this word because as I type, my library of emotional adjectives is letting me down.
Let me explain: On Tuesday I found myself hunting for a word to articulate an emotion, and I was not alone. The gentleman next to me said, “This is… ‘interesting’.”
This is because on Tuesday I ventured inside a maximum-security prison to witness the powerful work of a for-profit company whose goal is building men through job creation.
There we were, standing in cell block B at Hutchinson State correctional penitentiary, “The Hutch” as inmates would colloquially call it. During this tour, the yelling, the vulnerability, the angst, the awkwardness…was all on view.
We were in a 2 story cell block looking at inmates, while they were looking back at us, while the staff said to just ‘hang out and talk with them’.
We were faced with a diverse population, with no context of each other, half were standing around in their boxers, each inside a 48 square foot cell where they spend 23 hours per day. Some guys were watching CNN on a small screen, some had makeshift sheet tents for privacy, and others had nothing but a King James Bible and a book on a table. The cells were just wide enough for the bed to touch the toilet and the wall. In the 1980s it was two men to each of those cells…
An inviting barber chair in the middle of the narrow corridor with a poster of 18 haircut style choices to choose from, was a reminder that every day to day activity was crammed into a small footprint for life.
We started the journey walking through the 30-foot limestone walls into a vortex of gates, bars and security blocks. We ventured past the evidence locker, security command center and through more gates and bars to explore what one company is doing to be a redemptive force inside the prison. Not with the services you would think of, like legal support or family care… but by creating manufacturing jobs.
After the cell block tour, we walked through the atrium to the chapel. A bright, airy, elegant worship center in the center of this prison, looking out over the grounds. Green grass with a few scattered large limestones conjured up scenes of Robert Redford in Last Castle stacking the rocks. The chapel had room for a worship band, a 30-foot ceiling and great acoustics; a night-and-day remodeling from its 200-year-old dark shell.
From there we ventured “outside the wall” but not outside the prison, to the manufacturing floor for Seat King. Seat King is a boutique provider of OEM lawn mower and tractor seats to John Deere, Husqvarna, Bad Boy and others. After a short presentation, we walked the floor and talked with 56 prisoners about their jobs, sentences and families. Some prisoners had bounced in and out of multiple state or federal prisons. Some had 2 months left in their sentences while others had up to 15 years left.
Some common themes amongst the prisoners:
· They are more than the bad decisions that they’ve made in life.
· The life skills and work ethic they gain from their work is preparing them for a productive life upon release.
· Earning a paycheck is life-giving.
· They feel empowered because they can pay off their fines and restitution, provide for their families and save money for when they get out.
An inmate named John said; “…my life used to be determined 72 hours at a time. Where can I rob, when can I get drugs, who can I betray… now I see years ahead. About saving, keeping a job, working hard, I have a life…”
Other inmates shared hope and pride in their work with words like; “I want to build the best product that this company deserves” and “This job gives has given my life purpose and a great paycheck.”
The company, Seat King, and its leadership, Pete and Austin Ochs, design and deliver a win-win-win. Far more meaningful and authentic than the common “triple bottom line”: They believe success is achieved by delivering Economic-Capital, Social-Capital and Spiritual-Capital.
Economic Capital: The prison leases the space at fair market value and the state receives room and board from the inmates ($1.2M this year). Yes, that’s right! The prisoners are contributing 25% of their paycheck to room and board. The prisoner earns the prevailing wage set by the Federal Government as a part of PIECP which is higher than the minimum wage. They put 10% into savings. They pay off the fines from their crimes. They send child support. The company gets a high-quality product from minimum wage workers who are passionate about their work.
An important note… On average, these prisoners donate 5X more than local civilians. Is that economic or social capital that inspires radical generosity?
Social Capital: Inmates are developing in their relationships and growing in social skills, self-worth, purpose, company culture, leadership skills and training.
Spiritual Capital: Inmates are honoring and glorifying God inside the prison through Grace, redemption, bible studies and service in the chapel. Many prisoners have gotten their seminary degree in prison. Seat King provides the opportunity for inmates and has “kindelized” the seminary curriculum. As a result, prisoners have become shepherds and missionaries inside the church.
It was powerful to witness the journey from a discarded life to a redeemed life all from a for-profit business that is doing well and doing good for society. Isn’t that the golden ticket we seek?
I can not speak to, nor dismiss, justice, prison reform, systemic issues… I recognize that this prison has a high death rate, there is a serial killer in there, and these are murders, rapists, child molesters… the darkness is unequivocal. I am only describing the light piercing through.
God created each of these inmates in His image. “The Hutch” is a bad place. As one inmate said, it is everything that you’d see on TV and worse. This company, with its leadership, quality product and purpose-built culture is an incredible company that I hope and pray will be blessed with tremendous profitability, market share and positive PR. With that success and scale, they can replicate this model and harvest more economic, social and spiritual capital. Additionally, I hope for other companies to learn from them and see the return on investment in building men/women and not just widgets. Seat King elevates humanity through jobs, purpose and faith.
Driving out of the prison, there was a small graveyard with about 30 small headstones. These are the graves of inmates that died in prison whose families did not claim their bodies. I see that God is working inside this Kansas State Prison with a language of grace and I’m grateful that God claims all lives as they are laid to rest.
Please check out the story of The Ochs, recommend Seat King to your friends or buy a Bad Boy lawn mower because it has a Seat King Seat. Order Pete Ochs’ book, A High Impact Life, and see how you can apply these principles to your business or community.
I’ll end with this… I’m still struggling to articulate the right emotion, but I will say that it was “intense”!
This blog was submitted by Jeff Smith; Founder of Generosity NY.