DAWN—Walk up to any inmate at the Dawn unit of the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) and he can tell you the exact day he’ll be getting out of the system.
Murderers, rapists and child molesters are not among these inmates, said Chuck Allen, superintendent of the Dawn facility. The 138 inmates here wound up behind bars for non-violent crimes, such as robbery, embezzlement, arson, drugs and fraud. Some are at the end of a 12-year sentence.
Many inmates in Dawn are in their 20s and 30s, while a few are in their 60s.
Some are married, and some hope to be married someday and one got married last summer within the confines of the 12-foot high chain-link fence laced with spiraling rolls of razor and barbed wire. Starting at the seven-foot level, each link of the chain-link fence has built-in razors that would shred the fingers of anyone attempting to climb over.
The Dawn unit, built in 1965, is surrounded by rolling hills and fields. It’s a working farm where inmates cultivate and harvest acres of tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, collard greens, corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes, spinach, broccoli and turnips for their facility and other facilities. They stay behind bars at night but during the day, they drive tractors and Gators and pick crops and work in greenhouses. Right now, inmates are picking acres of collards.
The VDOC prides itself on having the nation’s second lowest recidivism rate. Only 24.3 percent of the inmates return to the penal system after release. Gov. Bob McDonnell is likely to claim some of the credit because he started the Virginia Adult Re-entry Initiative, which calls upon each facility to prepare inmates for their return to society through classes that cover: how to talk to your family; how to receive social services; and how to find a job. VDOC has 33,000 inmates and another 30,000 who are out on parole. The Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles is beginning to assist inmates at this facility in acquiring their ID cards as a condition of reentry.
The “E word,” as Allen calls it when talking about escapes, is something the Dawn unit has never experienced. He and the second-in-command there, Major Melissa Moyers, knocked on their wooden desks when Allen said, “No, we’ve never had an escape.”
Yet, the inmates are out in the fields working without a correction officer standing over them with a high-powered rifle or shotgun. They aren’t wearing chains or tracking devices. They are men who have proven to be trustworthy, said Allen, who’s worked for the VDOC for 36 years, including a stint at the state’s largest facility in Greensville.
“Escape—I’m sure it crosses people’s mind,” said DaRell Brockenbrough, 34, whose serving a 13-year sentence for armed robbery. Wearing glasses, a thin beard and a bright orange sweat shirt with the letters, “DOC,” he explained, “The majority of the people here are at the end of their sentence. They are kind of just trying to ease their way out without problems.”
“They are very hard workers,” said Louie Sabourin, agricultural supervisor at the facility. They labor in the fields almost year-round. In the summer, the temperature soars up to 95 degrees. In the fall, they spend hours lugging around 45-pound buckets of sweet potatoes in a field, Sabourin said.
Each inmate has a bank account, and he gets paid 45 cents an hour for his labor, and that’s for a 40-hour week, meaning weekly pay is $18.
They also do lawn care at various sites and pick vegetables at another facility and work at Meadow Event Park, cleaning up before and after the State Fair of Virginia. However, they aren’t allowed into any situations where they can have contact with the general public.
When they come in from the field, they are strip-searched because motorists have been known to toss a variety of items out the window beside the fields. Inmates have found packs of cigarettes and full cans of beer, Allen said. After the search, they shower and eat supper and then they have the rest of the evening for free time.
Road gangs are transported to various sites where they pick up trash and they are monitored by armed corrections officers. They also are strip-searched upon return to the facility. Trustworthiness is a factor with road gangs because some have turned in bullets found along the road and one even found a rusty pistol and handed it over to the corrections officer, Allen said.
Each inmate is allowed to have a TV, but he must use headphones. The inmate or his friends or relatives must purchase the TV, based on guidelines of the VDOC, Allen said.
Inmates are allowed to watch movies that are non-violent and have very little nudity. They don’t have e-mail, cell phones or Internet access, but they do have basic cable TV. Wall mounted phones are available, but the person receiving the call from the inmate must pay for the call, and rates are high, Allen noted.
The facility has a library that includes law books and popular fiction from best-selling authors.
Despite having hours to read and watch TV after supper, it’s not a life of leisure, especially during the hot, humid months. None of the living space is air conditioned, Allen said. A look inside the facility reveals that video cameras are everywhere, along with wall-mounted fans.
The cement block walls are clean and the concrete floors are coated with a high-gloss varnish. At the end of each hallway is a black door made of iron bars welded together. Brass keys the size of serving spoons are used to open metal locks that are built into the doors. The Dawn unit employees 55.
“The goal for the VaDOC and Caroline Corrections Unit specifically, is to prepare these returning citizens to reenter their communities, and earn a living by utilizing their skills, both vocational and social,” Allen said.
“The hardest part of incarceration is the stress of being away from your family,” Brockenbrough said. “You look at yourself in the mirror and you know you created a difficult situation for you family. But having God in my life and strong family support helps me. It helps me get through this situation without going crazy.
“I’m forced to be around people I would not normally associate with,” he said. “I came from a good family and my parents brought me up in the church.” No one is really picking on anyone. “There aren’t really any bullies here. But there are 130 men here and that’s a lot of testosterone packed into one place. Altercations are going to take place.”
Allen said anyone who starts a fight will be disciplined and is likely to be relocated to a higher security facility. The Dawn unit is level 1 security out of six levels.
Brockenbrough said he would like to travel to schools and speak to students. “I could tell them my story and help someone avoid this.” He is due for release in August 2014.
Standing under a blue sky and surrounded by wide open space, Johny Turner, 33, said, “It wouldn’t matter to me if it was raining. I still like to be outside.” He is serving a 12-year sentence for robbery, and is due for release in December 2014.
“I know I’ve learned my lesson and I don’t ever want to come back,” he said. He got married in 2003, and his wife has been waiting for his return all these years. He had an automotive detailing business before he was convicted, and he’ll probably return to that, he said.
Wives and girlfriends are allowed to visit the inmates on Saturdays and Sundays. They sit in plastic patio-style chairs facing each other in a packed room of visitors. They are allowed one hug and one kiss. However, if it becomes a lingering kiss, “they’ve already gone too far and they have to stop,” Allen said. If a line forms outside the visitation room, then visits are limited to one hour.
While behind bars, Turner spends his free time reading books on economics and law. “If you’re going to abide by the law, you must know the law.”
Pausing from picking large leaves of collard greens, Monterra Cottrell, 31, smiled and said, “I get out in 27 days.” He’ll go to Alabama where he’ll join his uncle on a fishing boat owned by a company that processes menhaden and produces omega-3 fish oil for human consumption, he said.
“We’re inmates. So coming out here to work is better than being caged up,” Cottrell said. He operates a tractor and “that’s pretty cool.”
In his free time, Cottrell lifts weight and bench-presses 225 pounds. He also enjoys watching sports on TV.
While working in the fields along the public roads, Cottrell has waved at passing motorists and noticed: “They don’t wave back. They frown at us like, ‘You scum of the earth.’ ”
Paul Franklin’s wife divorced him when he was convicted of arson and got a seven-year sentence. The 44-year-old father of two grown children and a teen-ager was a carpenter and had his own business. In fact, officials at the Dawn unit noted that they rely on Franklin to coordinate the assembly of greenhouses at the facility. Other inmates have skills in plumbing and electrical work.
Franklin senses that God relies on him to share the Bible with his fellow inmates, he said. In fact, Franklin sees himself as the in-house preacher. “I’ve been doing some of the preaching here. I let God deliver the message to me. I kind of let the spirit flow on me. I go through Old Testament stories about Job and David and show these guys what they are going through and then I take them through the New Testament and use Paul and Jesus to show them God’s mercy and how he can give you peace and joy.
“See, a lot of these young guys are here who need something—they are missing peace and joy that they have tried to find in drugs, drinking and women.”
Franklin’s release date is scheduled for Sept. 29, 2015. Until then, he’ll keep preaching to the inmates. “Sometimes I think God had a plan for me to come here. But first God had to pull me aside and get me straightened out.” Once he’s out of the system, Franklin will return to carpentry, and he plans to speak at churches in the Richmond area. In fact, “my cousin has a church in Tennessee, and he wants me to give a sermon.”