MILLEN - With roughly 45 years in the corrections business behind him, Ralph Kemp has become warden of a prison that is still being built. On it ride hopes for a county with one of Georgia's highest unemployment rates.
So far, Jenkins Correctional Center, which Corrections Corporation of America will own and operate, consists of hollow concrete and steel buildings surrounded by an impressive array of fencing. But more of CCA's $57 million investment in Millen is taking shape every day. The state of Georgia is slated to start sending inmates to the prison in March.
Meanwhile, Kemp, the prison's only official employee as of this week, has opened a temporary office on Winthrope Avenue in downtown Millen. He started interviewing Thursday for the first of five key staff members. When they are in place, the team will begin the process of hiring people for another 199 or so jobs.
CCA is slated to start accepting applications online Oct. 25 at www.ccajob.com.
Undoubtedly, most applicants will have less experience than the boss. Kemp, a Reidsville resident who turns 69 this month, earned a degree in sociology from Georgia Southern College and was hired at Georgia State Prison as industry placement officer - assigning inmates to jobs - in 1966.
He was later warden of four state prisons in series: the former Chatham facility, Coastal - when it replaced Chatham -¬ in Garden City, Central in Macon, and Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison at Jackson. He served as assistant regional director and then as assistant commissioner of the Georgia Department of Corrections before retiring in January 1996.
"I decided right quick that retirement was not for me," Kemp said during a reporter's walking tour of the Jenkins construction site.
The new prison will be the sixth Kemp has led as a warden. CCA put him to work in August 1998, the year it opened its first two Georgia prisons. He was assistant warden of CCA's Wheeler Correctional Facility at Alamo for two years, then its warden for 11 years, until his assignment at Jenkins began Sept. 15.
However, Kemp had been involved with the planning much earlier.
"My involvement in it started really when it was just an idea," he said. "We met sometime over a year ago, when they first started putting the design on paper. A lot of people had a lot of input into it, and I was fortunate enough to be one of them."
With beds for 1,150 medium-security inmates, Jenkins Correctional Center will be smaller than Wheeler, which has 3,028 beds and currently houses about 2,800 prisoners. However, the new prison is designed to be expanded. Kemp pointed to a construction pad being firmed up outside the fence and space for additional washing machines in the laundry.
Corrections Corporation of America is not literally building the prison. For that job, CCA hired general contractor Flintco, another company with national reach.
But CCA will own and operate the prison on a 25-year commitment with the Department of Corrections. Formally, it's a one-year base term with 24 annual renewal options, CCA Public Affairs Manager Mike Machak noted in an email.
Since the mid-1990s, Georgia's only all-new prisons have been those owned by CCA.
A flurry of state-owned prison construction ended with the opening of five prisons in 1994, as seen in site descriptions on the Department of Corrections website. Since then, there have been only expansions and renovations. The "Long Unit," opened at Ludowici in 2004, is officially an extension of Smith State Prison in Glennville, which opened in 1993.
Jenkins Correctional Center will be CCA's third prison built to house inmates for the state of Georgia. Like the Wheeler facility, Coffee Correctional Facility at Nichols opened in 1998.
However, the company also owns a prison at McRae serving the Federal Bureau of Prisons and a detention center at Lumpkin for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. CCA operates more than 60 facilities, owning 44 of them, in 20 states and the District of Columbia.
State avoids building cost
The state's daily cost of keeping an inmate is roughly the same as CCA's, in the $45 to $47 range, Georgia Department of Corrections public information specialist Kristen Stancil replied in an email.
"The cost savings for our department and the state is not having to fund the building of a new prison," she wrote.
Running prisons to make a profit gives CCA more incentive to purchase supplies at the best price, Kemp said. The company also tries to build all costs, such as eventual equipment replacement, into up-front projections for operating a facility. Kemp observed that this often is not the case with state projects.
"So far as actual operations are concerned, there's not a great deal of difference," he said. "The difference is the way we do business."
The prison's contract, Kemp said, requires CCA to follow "almost all" the policies that state-owned prisons do.
"Most folks will tell you that the employees are satisfied," Kemp added. "For example, we got a raise this year when hardly anybody in the industry got a raise."
CCA's salaries are required to be comparable to the state's, but CCA awarded merit raises within the pay brackets, he explained.
Benefits are roughly similar as well. While earlier state employees retain more generous pensions, the retirement plan Georgia offers state employees hired since 2008 is a 401-K. That is also the kind of plan CCA offers.
Ready for jobs
Kemp and CCA report getting a warm reception in Millen. Local people are clearly eager for the jobs, he said.
After losing its Jockey International clothing factory, plus a window manufacturer and a mobile home plant before and during the Great Recession, Jenkins County has regularly vied with Hancock County for the sad distinction of having Georgia's highest unemployment. Jenkins' 19.4 percent preliminary jobless rate in August fell below Hancock's 20.1 percent, but revised July figures showed Jenkins on "top" with 22.1 percent to Hancock's 18.8.
The prison construction involves 200-250 people. Flintco superintendents Charles Smith and Jim Lowrance, whom Smith introduced during the tour, listed at least six subcontractors based within about a 75-mile radius doing various parts of the work. Lowrance said 60-65 percent of the hiring has been local.
However, construction hiring has not put a dint in Jenkins County's official unemployment rate, which had been 19.1 percent back in July 2010.
Now the attention shifts to the 205 or so long-term jobs the prison will create. More than half will be for correctional officers and supervisors, but the prison will also employ teachers, nurses, and even a full-time dentist and a full-time physician.
Staff members at the Jenkins County Chamber of Commerce and neighboring Better Hometown Program said they are getting calls about prison jobs every day.
More than 300 people turned out for an Oct. 4 job fair in Millen, reported Robin Scott, Georgia Work Ready Coordinator for Jenkins County. Among 13 exhibitors, CCA and employers involved in the expansion of the Vogtle Nuclear Plant in neighboring Burke County drew a lot of the attention.
These developments are creating hope, but fear remains among the unemployed, Scott observed.
"People are fearful that they won't have an opportunity to work because there are so many that are without jobs, and CCA, the prison, even Plant Vogtle will only have opportunities for a certain percentage," he said.