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Good Wood shows good will

Display-making company often hires jail inmates

Mike Heine/The Week

(Published April. 13, 2007, 3:34 p.m.)

Running a business is full of risks.

The co-owners of Good Wood Displays in Elkhorn have an added risk that many businesses in the area just won't take. But for Wayne Dickman and Dean Struck, it has paid off.

With an operation only a few miles from the Walworth County Jail, Dickman and Struck have almost no reservations about hiring inmates from the Huber Dorm or those just released from custody.

The rare hiring practice started shortly after the custom wood display-making company opened on its Centralia Street location in October 2004.

"One (Huber inmate) came through the door, he had a contrite heart and he asked for a chance," said Ed Hill, company director of human resources and safety and traffic manager. "Dean and I discussed it and we thought, 'OK, lets give the guy a shot.' If a guy makes a mistake in his life and he wants to make amends, we'll give him a chance to do it."

What started with taking a chance one man has turned into hiring 19 inmates in 2 1/2 years. There are seven on the staff of 49 right now.

"I'm a compassionate, church-going guy," Struck said. "Just because someone had a problem, they got a DUI or didn't pay child support, doesn't mean they should be black-marked forever."

Black-marked. That's what often happens to inmates, who will sometimes spend much of their sentence unsuccessfully looking for work, said Jeff Keegan, a 30-year-old assembler who was hired out of the Huber Dorm after three months of job hunting.

"If you're in jail, you did something wrong. That's the way most people look at it," Keegan said.

Many companies, upon seeing his address at the Huber Dorm, seemingly turned him away automatically, Keegan said.

"They were gracious enough to give me a job," Keegan said of his bosses at Good Wood.

Fellow assembler and former Huber inmate Jeremy Cooper, 30, agreed with the hardships.

"There are plenty of people out there that don't give second chances or don't waste time with inmates," he said.

While the company has gotten a few workers who didn't pan out-inmates and non-inmates alike-most of its hires have been reliable. The company only has about a 10 percent annual turnover rate, Hill said.

Emil Panock, 39, has been with the company nearly two years. He served a year in prison and a year in Huber before coming to Good Wood, but he has since worked his way up to the paint department manager.

"They've done more than give me a leg up," Panock said. "They treat me fair and they recognized my abilities, which has allowed me to prosper in the world.

"They listen to you and they treat you like a family here. They're more concerned about your overall well-being, not only about how many parts you can put out per night."

Panock is just one of the once-jailed employees at Good Wood who have shown they are ready to be a productive part of the working world and society in general.

Not every Huber inmate who walks through the door is hired. The company, like any employer, looks mostly at ability, Hill said.

Dickman wonders why more companies don't hire current or former inmates.

"Maybe they're afraid of risk?" he said of a perspective employee's past. "There is risk involved, but we have a tendency to monitor it closely. To us, it's not a major concern."

The Walworth County Jail doesn't have the staff to help Huber inmates find jobs, and it doesn't recommend places for where to look. The inmates are usually on their own, Jail Administrator Mike Schmitz said.

"People who are Huber inmates have done something that brought them to this facility because of a wrongdoing against the law," he said. "But they could be your next door neighbor. Some people are very employable. Some people aren't.

"Companies should give these guys a chance to see if they can do a job. If they can't do it, don't hire them."

Good Wood officials have seen that these men, no matter their past, can do the job and do it well.

"Just because of their current situation in life doesn't mean you don't give them a second chance," Struck said.

 

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