Diamonds in the rough

Posted on Mar 9, 2010 :: Cover Story
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Posted by , Insight on Manufacturing Staff Writer

When Brandon Treadway was offered a two-week job as a pressure washer at Bayland Buildings in 2005, he wasn’t too happy about the idea – the pay was bleak, for one thing, and it wasn’t the farming work he was hoping for. Not that he had much of a choice.

At the time, Treadway was an inmate completing a sentence for aggravated battery at Sanger B. Powers Correctional Center in Oneida, a minimum security prison that operates a work-release program. Treadway accepted the job at Bayland and decided to make the best of it, hoping to extend the job beyond its original two-week stint. His hard work paid off.

Treadway, who was released from prison July 16, 2006, is now a foreman at the Hobart company’s fabrication shop in Seymour, making $40,000 a year and supporting his two daughters.

“I did a lot of physical labor, the heavy lifting, the stuff nobody else wanted to do,” Treadway says. “Eventually, it progressed, and the foreman at the time kind of took me under his wing and taught me how to weld.”

Treadway is one of dozens of inmates at Sanger B. Powers to benefit from a reentry program that helps place inmates with employers before they’re released, improving their chances for success outside of prison. The program is funded through the Bay Area Workforce Development Board. It’s just one example of many workforce development initiatives in the area designed to help underskilled and underemployed workers – initiatives that have become even more vital to the area since the economic downturn.

In the case of Treadway and other former inmates, having a criminal record only compounds the problem of finding steady employment in a tough economy.

Sanger B. Powers is a last-stop correctional facility for inmates who have cycled through the system from maximum security to medium and then earned their way to the minimum security prison, says Gail Kowaleski, who operates the reentry program through the Department of Corrections.

The program helps inmates to take the necessary steps to prepare for life outside of prison, such as recovering their driver’s licenses, setting up a plan to pay restitution or child support, training them on basic workplace skills and helping them to find an apartment after release. Some inmates who have been in the system for a long time also need training on phones and the Internet, Kowaleski says. In February, there were 128 inmates and 62 of them on work release, she says.

Bayland currently employs three former Sanger B. Powers inmates who have worked out very well, though supervisor Dave Van Boxtel also has sent three back.
When an inmate employee doesn’t work out for a company, Kowaleski says her agency will reassess the inmate’s skills and abilities and place him in a different job. The Department of Corrections also reimburses businesses if an inmate causes a loss, but there haven’t been any claims yet, she says.

Van Boxtel was impressed by Treadway’s energy, work ethic and drive and asked Kowaleski if he could keep him on longer than the original two-week stint, though he may not have guessed at the time that five years later Treadway would be one of Bayland’s top employees. That’s not to say Treadway’s advancement at Bayland was easy. Treadway had a hard time at first winning over his coworkers, for example.

“If you think prison inmate, you think hardened criminal – somebody you’re probably scared of,” Treadway says. “It took quite a few months. For six or eight weeks I probably said a total of 20 words. I just shut up and worked.”

And there were roadblocks Bayland had to overcome as well. The company wanted Treadway to be certified in welding, but Sanger B. Powers wouldn’t allow Treadway to attend the necessary Saturday classes at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College. So the company instead trained him on the job for about a year and Treadway was able to go to NWTC for the final certification. Treadway has talked about his experiences with groups of inmates at Kettle Moraine Correctional Institution and at Sanger B. Powers.

In the end, the experience Treadway gained at Bayland came together with his farming knowledge in an interesting way: He developed an idea for a device that rotates cows 360 degrees to make breeding, vaccinations and a procedure to deal with twisted stomachs easier, saving farmers thousands of dollars in veterinary fees. With the help of Van Boxtel and Bayland president Steve Ambrosius, Treadway developed the idea into a viable prototype called the Roll & Tac 360 and started a business – Tread-Box Enterprises. He recently sold one at a dairy business association show.

Deb Barlament, Bayland’s vice president of operations, says the successes like Treadway’s make her company’s participation in the reentry program worth it.
“Our corporate culture is such that we look for any way that we can to give back to community,” Barlament says. “This is one of the ways we can do that, to work with gentlemen like Brandon who want to get back in society and turn their life around. It’s been a plus for Bayland. In addition to us helping them, they’ve helped us to find good, qualified employees.”

The reentry program through Sanger B. Powers has been so successful that Kowaleski estimates at least 80 percent of inmates who participate do not return to prison. Treadway is an example of how the system can work, but it took an effort on his part, too.

“He turned everything around, because he got an opportunity,” Kowaleski says. “He left here with some money, he left here with a plan. He has just done fabulous”.