HELD UP: Roofing Prisons a Growth Industry
It’s just one more segment of a thriving economy, albeit one that disturbs some people. The building boom of correctional facilities across the United States provides many opportunities for guards, consultants, communities and contractors, and every one of those buildings will need a roof. Many times, the roof has to be bomb-proof, meet strict specifications, provide a long service life and not present any security risks.
Of course, the roofing companies need to meet the same requirements, often putting every employee on the job through background checks, posting large bonds and offering maintenance programs with no chance of parole. For those used to institutional work, it means just a few more hoops to jump through and missing out on this growth would be, well, a crime.
Rising PopulationsLike many other industries, the United States leads much of the world in prison population. Since 1990, the number of those incarcerated has grown 5.7 percent annually; 3.1 percent of all U.S. adults are now in jail or prison, on probation, or on parole, for a total of 6.3 million people. Over 2 million people are currently housed in some kind of correctional facility, which means a lot of roofing. The most recent numbers from the U.S. Department of Justice show that 213 federal and state prisons were built between 1990 and 1995, representing an addition of 280,000 prison beds; local municipal facilities were not included. Over half of the prisons are less than 20 years old.
Even with this surge, many facilities are over capacity, sometimes even before they are finished. Although that growth curve has recently eased somewhat, there is still plenty of work to be performed: An estimated $35 to 40 billion a year is spent on corrections. In addition, the older buildings need maintenance and will eventually have their roofs replaced.
WA Lynch of Charlottesville, Va., recently installed EPDM roofing on 13 buildings of the Wallens Ridge State Prison, a new facility built on top of a Blue Ridge mountain that was sheared off. Tom McGraw, vice-president of WA Lynch, took the company through the entire design and construction process on roofs that ranged from 500 to 150,000 square feet. “We literally took this thing from infant stage to completion,” says McGraw. “I’ve been in this business for 30 years and I’ve never had so much fun.”
Since the maximum-security facility is privately owned and operated, the bid restrictions for state projects never came into play. WA Lynch was brought into the job due to the company’s strong relationship with the general contractor, even though they did have to post a 10 percent bond; the bonding rate for the 60-year-old company is negligible. However, there was a $15,000 per day penalty for missing the deadline. “You had to be the type of company to withstand the financing,” says McGraw.
Moreover, continues McGraw, “Weather conditions were fairly brutal for a substantial part of the project.” Snow was a big problem, but thanks to a robust concrete roof deck that WA Lynch subbed out to another contractor, the company was able to use a mini front-end loader on the deck to clear the roof and stay on schedule. Some roofs were fully adhered, others were ballasted. McGraw’s crews also installed pavers that will be used by guards regularly in their duties. The company installed metal siding near the parapet and flashed duct work that was completely enclosed, thus taking the concept of unauthorized access to new heights. Cost, fire ratings and a 15-year no-dollar-limit warranty all contributed to the selection of Carlisle EPDM.
While the company has done regional jails and carved out a niche in high-end residential roofing, one unforgettable lesson behind the project was when his crews were offered their (hopefully) only chance to experience the sensation of being a prisoner. “It was an eye-opening thing for my employees to actually go inside and sit in the cell,” says McGraw. “It was something else.”
Background ChecksAs with any government job, numerous requirements have to be met before the crews can begin their work, especially when the project is at an existing prison. Tolley Hughes, a roofing company founded in 1953 in Boise, Idaho, recently installed 600,000 square feet of roofing on an addition to the Eastern Oregon Correctional facility. Kent Tolley, president, says that the project taught him more about his employees than he ever knew. Workers that passed the prison’s background checks were later found to be illegal immigrants by the INS.
“It’s interesting to see who can get in and who can’t,” he explains. “We lost some workers but the irony is we had some really good workers who couldn’t go in there. You have to go through several men before you can get a crew.” Once he got enough workers, they had to go through orientation where guards went over the procedures, including the alarm that signaled a lock down. Tolley now chuckles at the scare tactics used by the guards, who stated that everyone — free or incarcerated — had to freeze on the spot when the special alarm sounds or risk being shot. There were the usual restrictions over guns and drugs, and each vehicle that entered the compound was inspected thoroughly before entering and leaving. “It can take sometimes an hour just to go through all your checks,” Tolley says. “When you get a job in a prison, you have to factor that in.”
Another requirement was strict inventory control. Every tool and scrap of metal had to be accounted for on a daily basis. The workers had to forgo blue jeans because that was the official garb for prisoners. That was an important factor because on some jobs trustees provided basic labor like tear offs and fetching materials. Tolley’s Salt Lake crew is often joined by a busload of inmates — there’s always at least one guard on hand — when it performs on state projects, and he doesn’t have to worry about prevailing wages or worker’s compensation.
In fact, prison labor is a burgeoning industry. Inmates have done everything from making rocking horses for Eddie Bauer to taking reservations for airlines and motels. Over 90 percent of federal and state prisons operate inmate work programs; sales from prison industries are in the billions; and inmates in Arizona, California and North Carolina even assist in the construction of new prisons. In Texas, inmates with a special Christian-based assistance program called InterChange, help to build homes for Habitat for Humanity.
"They should have done this years ago," remarks Corrections Officer Matthew Brames to the Associated Press. He was one of several prison officials who monitored the inmates' work. "You'd be surprised at the talent locked up in prison." Tolley has even used work-release labor. He doesn’t seek it out, but sometimes, good employees get into trouble. “A lot of them times you get some pretty good workers who drink it up and get caught,” he laments. But in such a tight labor market it’s hard to be picky, even when one guy overseeing your crew carries a gun.
Secure RoofOccasionally the fears about lock downs and riots become a reality. George Patterson, director of operations for Bennett and Brosseau Roofing Inc. in Romeoville, Ill., recalls a project some years back at the Pontiac Correctional Center when there was an incident at another state facility. Word got out to the inmates statewide and those who were in the exercise yard at Dixon started causing some trouble. “The inmates didn’t want to go back inside after their exercise period,” Patterson explains. “There was a real concern there was going to be a riot and our guys weren’t sure if there were going to get home that night. It was a real emotional time.”
There was no riot and the inmates remained under control. Still, Patterson recalls being only a concrete wall away from the cells in order to access some of the roofs. There was always a guard assigned for protection of the crews and any repairs are made by the same crew member who is familiar with the protocol as well as the guards. The requirements for crews to gain access were so strict that one of Patterson’s subcontractors couldn’t use half his crew. Even workers with juvenile offenses or those who have been through drug rehabilitation were nixed. “We sent in eight guys that we knew could make it in,” says Patterson. “Our company as a whole is pretty family oriented. We have a clean image for the company.”
While his workers are as tough as they come, they still would blush at the comments the inmates would make to them, especially during one job at a female prison. The workers were told not to acknowledge any of the prisoners or make any eye contact. Even the weather made the projects a more sobering experience. “Whenever I went to the pre-bid meeting, it was always raining,” Patterson recalls. “It kind of adds to the emotion.”
For a listing of federal prisons including addresses and phone numbers, visit www.usdoj.gov/jmd/osdbu/prisons.