AVON PARK – Housed behind the snarled barbwire and chain-link fencing, automatic-lock doors and guard towers of the Avon Park Correctional Institution, there’s a fully-functional warehouse, turning worthless wheels into trustworthy tires, many of which leave the facility in better shape than when they were new,
The prison program generates about $4 million a year and annually gets about 50,000 new tires rolling along the byways and highways of Florida and around the United States.
As part of Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises (PRIDE), since the mid-1980s, inmates at the prison have been re-fabricating old, worn, torn and punctured truck and industrial machine tires back into fully-functional, road-worthy truck and machinery tires of all makes and sizes.
PRIDE is supported by a partnership with the Florida Department of Corrections, and its work programs are designed to provide vocational training, improve prison security, reduce the cost of state government, and promote the rehabilitation of the state inmates. The program reduces the cost to the state government through inmate wage deductions for room and board for victim restitution and through revenue and profit-sharing contracts with the Department of Corrections.
The program has 20 to 30 different businesses around the state working from prisons.
Around Florida, there are facilities for graphics, furniture making, textiles, and dental and optical PRIDE programs; at APVI, the main industry is the tire retreading complex. There, an average of 60 inmates work eight hours a day reworking and re-functioning 300 to 400 tires a day, 250 days a year.
The goal certainly isn’t economic for the workers -- they make from 20 cents an hour to begin and 55 cents after three years -- but it’s to learn a trade skill, develop a cooperative spirit and be ready for work once their release date is set. During a retread tire plant workday Thursday, prisoners in grey jumpsuits milled about various work stations, sparks flying from buffers, air hoses hissing into the hot, still air loaded with the acrid smell of heated rubber.
To get there, each inmate submitted an application and completed an interview, with inmates with violent histories or are security risks usually weeded out, said Bob Suba, PRIDE service operations manager, based in Brandon. PRIDE looks at the severity of the crime and takes on inmates who usually have an average of three- to seven-year sentences.
“In the modern prison population, they need to be taught work, why you have to work a full eight hours, why you have to support your superiors and learn to experience teamwork,” said Suba, who has worked with PRIDE since 1991.
Throughout their workdays in the tire plant, inmates take tires brought in from various tire and automotive businesses from around central Florida.
Using the latest retreading equipment, they man different stations -- taking off worn casings; analyzing them for defects and problems; making repairs and “skiving,” removing lodged objects with an extractor; using machines to buff the surfaces; attaching new tread, called “building”; assembling components; pressure-treating with 85 pounds of pressure in a chamber for three hours; and finally, having them vulcanized.
By the time the tires -- many of them coming in barely recognizable as wheels -- come out and are sorted and stacked, they’re gleaming and are as grooved as they were when they were new. Most of them are used in government fleets and for school districts, which about half in the state are serviced with tires retreaded through PRIDE.
And at the same time, each completed project is another step in turning the lives around of those that remade the tires.
“I never knew anything about retreading tires until a I got here,” said inmate Ladarine “Shawn” Williams of Lakeland, who said he’s serving 15 years for assault.
Williams, 40, has been working with tires for 10 years in the retread plant and is scheduled for release in 2016. He said he inspects and repairs between 65 and 100 tires a day and will have a voucher for a job when he gets out.
“Now, a company will be able to benefit from my skills when I get out. This has given me the opportunity and skills that I can take out with me,” he added, while he pulled a strip of rubber from a tire groove.
Suba said profits from the factory are consolidated at the PRIDE corporate level and use to expand and enhance all programs, including tires. He said PRIDE also has a victim restitution element, where the company matches 15 percent of wages for approved expenses.
Behind Williams, a line of six men worked the one of four buffing machines, smoothing tire surfaces with electric buffers so the wheels will be ready for tread. After they’re buffed, there taken over to the tread station, where working inmates literally hand-roll spools of tread onto the tire casing. After they’re pressurized, they’re stacked and oftentimes, sent back to the tire dealer who sent them out in the beginning.
Wayne Graham, manager of Big T Tire, 1109 W. Main St., Avon Park, said he sends 10 to 15 tires per week out to the PRIDE facility to be retreaded and his company has worked with the prison for about two years. He said within a week, they’re back and sold for an average of $215 each.
“It’s definitely a good program for us and for the prisoners, too, I imagine,” he said. “When they go out, they’re really bad; when they come back, they’re like new.”
The tires -- name brands such as Goodyear and Michelin -- come in from as far north as Jacksonville and down to Miami, said Rob Dague, PRIDE Tire Retread Industry manager. He said each tire is sorted out for inspection after they’re trucked in and looked over to make sure they’re serviceable. He said he daily sees inmate workers’ attitudes change and self-esteem increase as they’re learning a new trade.
“To make the tires road-worthy, it’s like having a decay in your tooth and we’re removing the bad spots,” he said. “As long as you have a good re-treader that knows how to retread, you can actually get more fuel economy with these tires in most cases.”
Suba said all of PRIDE’s programs have been successful over the years and the tire plant at APCI is ever-expanding. A smaller version of the factory was recently built adjacent to the main plant for training purposes and would be operating within “weeks.”
“This works well. We have created jobs out there for these people. It’s the most practical form of rehabilitation,” he said. “This gives them life skills and teaches them what the real world is like compared to where they came from.”
Founded in 1966, PRIDE Industries, one of the nation’s largest nonprofit employers of people with disabilities, provides a selection of outsourcing solutions to meet the manufacturing and service needs of Fortune 500 companies and government agencies nationwide.