It’s 9 a.m. at Southern Spear Ironworks and Phillip Richard is hard at work fabricating rods, beams and other support systems out of structural steel. He’s been working for a couple of hours now, welding by hand or using heavy machinery inside Southern Spear’s nearly 14,000 square foot main floor.
Each day, inside the plant’s open gates, a balancing act between human and machine takes place. Craftworkers transform metal into various shapes and sizes – flattening, crimping, punching and bending steel to their will.
The factory features an impressive equipment roster that includes a Hydmech automated saw, a 200-ton press brake, a Python X robotic fabrication system and a 300-amp plasma cutting machine known as “The Dragon.”
Welders expertly fuse together metal in bursts of light that would blind uncovered eyes. Raw materials move through the conveyor belt for processing. Richard drives a forklift toward a depository of I-shaped beams. He is part of an elite workforce of fewer than 500,000 U.S. employees who have mastered the craft of welding and can execute its many variations from TIG, to stick to MIG – skills becoming increasingly hard to find.
He found his way to Southern Spear through a path not often taken.
Looking through Richard’s history you’d see he’s many things: devout, hardworking, a leader at his job, an artist with the torch as well as the pen and a former inmate of Silverdale Detention Center.
In 2021, Richard was arrested for violating his probation and sentenced to serve 11 months, 29 days at Silverdale. During this time he met Wendy Harris a Reentry Supervisor at Silverdale and she encouraged him to join a rehabilitation program to develop soft skills. Determined to make the best out of his situation, Richard enrolled in the reentry program and began building a better life for himself beyond the prison walls.
“You can have idle time and you can sit there, or you can try to progress. It’s all about what you want,” Richard says.
In 2018, under Sherriff Jim Hammond, the Hamilton County Sherriff’s Office Reentry program launched with the goal of reducing Silverdale’s recidivism rate – the rate in which a convicted criminal reoffends.
The program helps inmates navigate challenges that come from having a criminal background whether it’s homelessness, unemployment, domestic abuse, employment and housing discrimination, or chemical dependency issues.
Since its launch, the reentry program has helped about 800 inmates gain the soft skills needed to succeed on the outside. These days, Harris and her facilitator team guide more than 100 men and women through lesson plans in parenting, anger management, financial literacy and housing. They start by assessing each candidate’s needs. Some go through mental health services and trauma therapy. Some find sobriety through the prison’s Celebrate Recovery program. Others, like Richard, study to earn their GED and gain skills to maintain stable employment.
Silverdale’s recidivism rate for male inmates dropped from 73% in 2018 to 12% in 2022 – Hamilton County Sherriff’s Office reports.
The reentry program’s impact is felt throughout the prison as chaplains guide groups of men in discussions on becoming more compassionate. A counselor meets with her client in an open gazebo. Harris proudly displays student’s artwork across her classroom walls.
Those that pass through the reentry program can qualify to enter Hamilton County Sherriff’s Office Work Release program, launched in 2021.
While the reentry program is voluntary and open to almost everyone, the work release program requires Harris’s recommendation and holds a higher entry point, as Scott Michiels, Inmate Programs Project Manager, Hamilton County Sherriff’s Office explains.
“They have to have an out date (11 months, 29 days) and no pre-trail. We won’t place them in the program if they have violent crimes, domestic abuse, batteries, gun crimes, or anything that has to do with sexual assault,” Michiels says.
Once these qualifications are met, candidates pass through an application process where Harris and Michiels evaluate a candidate’s skills and competencies to match them with potential employers.
When an employer is found, the inmates are allowed to leave their cells for work – earning a wage that’s saved until their release date.
“There are people that want to change, want to do better and have the determination to do it,” Richard says.
“I was [working]. I saved money and I got out without being broke and having to find a job or needing help paying rent. It got me a couple steps ahead.”
A common misconception with work release programs is that they relegate inmates to dead-end, low-paying jobs. This is not the case in Hamilton County. The sheriff’s office partners with businesses that pay employees a competitive wage while offering potential growth opportunities within the company.
“We’re trying to get [former inmates] in a position where they can succeed. Where they have an alternative to hustling and making money the wrong way. It gives them something to be proud of. Something they can take to their families and say, ‘Look, I am providing,’” Michiels says.
From left to right: Scott Michiels, Wendy Harris and Deputy Chief Shaun Shepherd
This work release program impacts our community in other ways beyond recidivism. By lessening the burden on the criminal justice system, funds can now go toward resources like infrastructure and education while creating motivated employees to fill staffing shortages brought on by the pandemic.
For entrepreneurs like Sean Compton, President, CEO, Southern Spear, offering individuals a second chance seems like the right choice.
“It’s been fulfilling across the board,” Compton says.
“On a macro level, it’s a large reciprocal change that can actually build velocity because we’re gaining employees – which is great – but we’re also getting people out of jail to do something good for the community.”
Compton founded Southern Spear in 2016 – funding the venture through personal savings and credit cards. He’s grown the company to over 100 people, offering a wide range of fabrication and design-build services for projects around the world – from McMurdo Station, Antarctica, to CHI Memorial Stadium, East Ridge, Tennessee.
As the son of Florida intercity schoolteachers, he holds a passion for developing talent from underserved communities.
In January 2021, Compton launched a welders apprenticeship program through the Future Ready Institute at Howard High School. He partnered with the sheriff’s office that same year and tested the work release program with one candidate, Richard. Since then, three more inmates completed this program.
All four inmates were released from Silverdale and work fulltime at Southern Spear.
Compton encourages companies to consider these programs when evaluating their talent attraction and retention needs. For Southern Spear, “the juice is worth the squeeze.”
“Everything that’s worth doing is going to have some risk and take time,” Compton says.
“You have to put checks and balances and you have to interview people. You have to make sure they fit your culture and they want to be there. … It’s worth the effort and the time – especially if you want to do something good. … You’re gaining good employees that want to be there. The fact that you gave them a chance speaks loudly.”
Southern Spear is the first local business to partner with Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office Work Release program. Local businesses that would like to learn more can contact [email protected].
Every year, more than 500 people leave incarceration and return to Hamilton County.
The Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office Work Release program helps mitigate talent shortages and creates a better path for economic mobility by providing training and employment opportunities.
This program and others like it help build the inclusive economy we envisioned in Chattanooga Climbs.
Steve Hiatt, Director, Existing Business Development, Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce.