Almost every weekday from January to June, Dennis Wade left the Orange Correctional Center prison gates in Hillsborough to work at Mama Dip's Restaurant in Chapel Hill. Like all state prisoners with off-site jobs, Wade was a model inmate who earned the right to venture out on his own. He worked at Dip's full-time for $8.50 an hour, spending most of his days in the hot kitchen tending to the soul food that attracts patrons in droves.
But Wade has little money to show for his labor. Like many prisoners at Orange, he paid a driver at a premium rate to take him back and forth to his job.
"I've made over $6,000," says Wade, whose six-year sentence for burglary ends in December. "Guess how much I have in my account? Two hundred and twenty-six dollars. If that ain't highway robbery, I don't know what is."
Wade's story is typical of working inmates at Orange Correctional, one of the state's 39 minimum security prisons that house nonviolent offenders and people on their way out of the system. Convicts nearing parole can leave campus for jobs with private employers in the local community. Right now, about 1,100 of the state's 1,500 least restricted prisoners go out on work release.
The program is an effort to help inmates adjust to life outside confinement, cover restitution and court costs, and earn some extra cash to ease the transition to life in the real world. But in a perversion of what many consider a noble system, work release can fatten the pockets of the private drivers and even cause some inmates to lose money.
Prisoners must surrender large portions of their wages even before ponying up for transportation. They pay for room and board, taxes, and in some cases restitution, which together eat up as much as 60 percent of their gross income. Transportation chews up the bulk of what's left.
Orange inmates pay $15 a day to a private company that prison officials identify as Rochelle Transportation run by George Rochelle of Rougemont in northern Durham County. The price may not sound like much, but in other prisons across the state, work-release inmates pay just $3 a day. So instead of clearing the $30 or $40 per 40-hour workweek earned in Orange County, those inmates make nearly $100. It can make the difference between an easy landing upon release and the temptation to return to crime.
Until last year, Orange Correctional had more transportation options. An Orange Public Transportation bus stopped at the facility and took some prisoners to work in Chapel Hill for $1 each way. But OPT changed the route to increase ridership.
"When we were talking to the prison and letting them know in advance, they said they would use their own van service to do it," OPT supervisor Al Terry says. "We knew we weren't leaving them out in the cold."
According to Orange work-release coordinator Sandy Burwell, recent layoffs at Orange meant that the prison didn't have the extra personnel to drive inmates to work. Burwell was in charge of choosing a private transportation company to fill in the gaps.
"Believe me--I went through about 20 [applications] before I found one that was suitable," she says. "We run criminal histories on them and drivers' histories on them. We check them out really good."
However, Burwell could provide no evidence that any other companies had applied or been considered. Orange officials told state Department of Corrections public affairs officer Keith Acree that Rochelle was recommended by a person on the prison's Community Resource Council, a group of volunteers who help the prison meet basic needs.
If Rochelle has any transportation experience, it's not clear from the record, and he declined to be interviewed for this story, referring questions to prison authorities. Rochelle Transportation is not registered with the N.C. Secretary of State's office and appears to have no legal standing, nor has George Rochelle registered a company under any other name. However, he is related to Frank Edward Rochelle, the registered agent of Reliable Transportation Services in Rockingham County, who has a criminal record stemming from a 1992 misdemeanor assault conviction.
Orange pays Rochelle about $5,000 a month without a contract, at least not that anyone can find. He signed a form to abide by certain rules, such as not driving under the influence or allowing inmates to use alcohol or drugs, and taking the most direct route to and from work.
Orange officials were reluctant to discuss Rochelle, referring calls to Amanda Cobb, the prison's programs supervisor.
"I've got a couple of guys right now that are a little disgruntled about the money that they're making, but they have a choice in taking these jobs," Cobb says. "It's nothing that we put on them. We basically promote them and they have an opportunity to look for their own jobs, but if they can't find transportation, that's their choice."
Though Burwell says she sifted through a stack of applications to find Rochelle, Cobb says that the company was chosen based on a recommendation. She also contradicted Burwell's claim that Orange has been using Rochelle for three or four years, stating that he'd been driving inmates for only a year.
Nor could state officials clarify the arrangement. Fay Lassiter, the assistant chief of program services at the state Department of Corrections in Raleigh, says that the central office has no oversight of private transportation contracts nor does the administration keep files on who is providing transportation at the local facilities, despite the fact that the state cuts Rochelle a check every month.
Acree thinks the Orange inmates are getting a good deal.
"To me as a citizen, 15 bucks for a daily ride roundtrip from Hillsborough to Burlington sounds like a bargain," he says. Orange Correctional inmate Robert Gupton works at the K&W Cafeteria in Chapel Hill, about 13 miles away from the prison. Mama Dip's, where Wade worked, is about 11 miles away. "You certainly couldn't get a cab for that price," Acree says.
Acree might be right about cab fares, but other inmates pay far less for their transportation. DOC charges $3 a day for rides in state-owned, DOC vehicles driven by prison employees. Prisoners at Durham Correctional Center pay $9 for private transportation. Inmates at the Wake County Correctional Center ride city buses, which stop in front of the facility.
"They're killing us," says Gupton, who is serving nearly eight years for breaking and entering. "Basically, I'm working just to pay them."
Orange Correctional Center Superintendent Michael Thumm says he carefully monitors inmates, and if he notices them falling into debt, he takes them off their jobs. But he lets the guys that are just breaking even continue to work to gain nonfinancial benefits like job skills, work ethic and community involvement.
Michael Hamden, executive director of N.C. Prison Legal Services, agrees that an opportunity to work beats sitting in a cell all day looking at four walls. He also says, "I would hope that they could be gainfully employed so that they could pay restitution and makes gains so that they can make the successful transition to a law-abiding life."
Former inmate Ansar Footman made that transition in May. He had used Rochelle after his alternative transportation fell through.
"He knows he's killing us," Footman says. "He knows cats aren't getting any money. He feels like we shouldn't care because it's just a privilege to come out of prison."
If not for his first two jobs when he wasn't relying on Rochelle to get to work, Footman says he would have left prison without any savings and not landed on his feet.
Cobb, the programs supervisor, says, "It sounds like this is a target on Mr. Rochelle when he's doing his own business and he quotes us a price. Either we can take it or leave it. Inmates can go to work or they can stay on the unit.
"If you have some suggestions or you know someone with cheaper prices, send them my way," she says. "We will investigate."