The Finkells: Factories Behind Fences

On Tuesday, I had the opportunity to visit with Don and Emily Finkell, two local entrepreneurs.

Win-Win-Win. That’s how CEO Don Finkell describes his company. The state wins. The company wins. The prisoner wins.

Inmates in Turney Correctional facility outside of Nashville, Tennessee have the opportunity to work at a fully-functioning flooring plant inside the gates of the prison. American OEM Wood Floors, Don Finkell’s brainchild, has a huge focus on social entrepreneurship. He started the company four years ago and fired up manufacturing two years later.

Inmates at Turney are good candidates for employment at American OEM because they have a medium security risk. This means that their crimes are not as serious as inmates at other institutions, but their sentences have the longevity needed for job training and craft honing at the work program.

These inmates typically have a seven-year sentence and must have three remaining to be eligible for the program. Additional requirements include perfect behavior and a high school diploma or GED. The employees are paid the same as comparable jobs in the area, which is a good bit higher than minimum wage.

Wages earned are sent back to the state for restitution, used to pay for room and board, and invested in the lives of their children back home though child support payments.  Furthermore, 10% of earnings is put into savings for the eventual transition of the worker back to society.

Inmates also benefit from vocational rehabilitation and a sense of pride and purpose.

Finkell noted that because inmates can elect to send additional funds back home to their families and children, bonds are built that assist in individuals’ success once released.

Finkell indicated “In Tennessee the recidivism rate is 50% after 3 years. In most states, the rate is closer to 70%. For people in this program, it’s less than 10%.”

Recidivism  - the percentage of prisoners who relapse into criminal behavior and go back to prison - is a statistic describing what poverty alleviation philosophy

Social entrepreneurship -  is a business model centered around implementing solutions to social, cultural, or environmental issues.

Jobs at OEM in the Turney facility include general labor, loader, packer, quality control, machine operator, electrician, machinist, color matcher, clerk, bookkeeper, and R&D. These jobs translate on the outside to nearly any manufacturer.

“Factories behind fences” type of programs are not new. Created by Congress in 1979, the Prison Industry Enhancement Program encourages State and local correctional agencies to partner with private companies and give inmates real work opportunities at prevailing wages.

Finkell is not new to prison work programs either. Twenty years ago, when Finkell was at Anderson Flooring in South Carolina, he launched a prison work program that grew from 14 inmates employed to 1,000 – all focused on hand-scraped flooring. After having retired from Anderson Floors, which was sold to Shaw Industries in 2007, he took over running Shaw Hardwood.

Emily shared that the “hand touched details of the product make it beautiful.” The products are competitively priced, which is in part due to the decreased transportation costs due to the factory’s location. OEM’s hardwood flooring is “American-made and is 7-ply, 5/8 of an inch; thicker than other products in the industry.”

Currently, OEM has around 200 inmate employees and 20 civilians at a design center, warehouse and office about 30 miles from the prison.

I would a 4th and 5th win: society at large and for the inmates’ families. What better gift can be given than the rehabilitation of a loved one to be a self-sustaining and a productive citizen?  I asked Don about the impact of the program.  He said that OEM has “done way more good than I ever thought.  What they are spending their time on is important and it counts.”

He was visiting the plant one day and had the opportunity to speak to one of his employees who had just been released. The employee thanked him for the opportunity to work. I could tell from Don’s eyes just how special this personal thank you was to him.

Emily’s business dovetails OEM. She recently launched Emily Morrow Home which offers a curated home products including flooring, lighting, and upholstery.

Don and Emily Finkell live in Rocky Face, Georgia and are active in many local community activities and charities.

This column by Andrea Dobbins appeared in the July 23rd edition of the Dalton Daily Citizen News. Dobbins is the Executive Director of the Floor Covering Foundation.