Erford Harrison

When Erford Harrison joined Habersham Metal Products in 1956, building a detention facility meant years of heavy lifting, and piecemeal construction, finally crosshatched and finished with the clang of those iconic iron bars.

He has since helped revolutionize the industry, rendering “bar grille” mostly obsolete and shifting building materials toward lightweight, prefabricated, modular steel enclosures. At age 77, Harrison still hustles in the vanguard of detention innovation as a technical consultant for SteelCell Inc., a manufacturer that has supplied units to Guantanamo Bay and “undisclosed government locations” for homeland security.
Harrison, who says his first name rhymes with “Hereford, like the cattle,” grew up in Pea Ridge, a small community near Baldwin, in north Georgia, where SteelCell, a spinoff company of Habersham Metal, is based. This part of the state has become known in international criminal justice circles as a generative research triangle, with architects, engineers, builders, and other lock-and-key experts clustered here and in Atlanta. Harrison reigns as their wily and congenial elder statesman and cultural ambassador of sorts. When clients visit, he might — after the handshakes, back-slapping, and shop-talk over blueprints — serve Mason jars of Appalachian libations, blotted the next morning with coffee, biscuits, and grits at Ma Gooch’s, a Cleveland eatery some have dubbed “the epicenter and feeding trough of the detention industry.”
Since the dark days of chain gangs, Harrison and other Southern corrections specialists have been thinking inside the box, so to speak, relying on farmhand practicality and mechanical ingenuity, and, in the process, earning a reputation for progressive business practices as well as lock-ups that are as cost-effective as they are escape-resistant. He reflects on these changes with folksy bluntness and optimism about the future.
Q. How did you enter into this business?
A. I was just out of the Army and looking for a temporary job to pay for college when I went to work at Habersham Metal. I liked it so much I stayed for 40 years and then ended up at SteelCell, but I didn’t know at the time that we would be at the very cutting edge of this field. We were mostly doing other industrial work, but because of a boom in the prison population, found ourselves doing more and more detention. In the 1940s, there were just a few companies in the country that built jails, and they would come in and build the whole damn thing from the ground up, taking years, using just one guy to straighten the bars. It became clear that we all needed a more efficient approach.
Q. What were some of the problems in the old methods of design and construction?
A. The bars, to begin with. They weren’t safe for the inmates or the staff. They were noisy as hell, always clanging, and prisoners would do what they called “fishing,” using string to send out notes and contraband from cell to cell, even if they were in lock-down, and “scoping” with bits of broken mirror to see if a guard was coming. That part was almost comical to watch. But they also would splash “cocktails,” containers full of human waste, on people walking by, or attack the staff with handmade weapons. You’re caging the smartest animal on the planet, an animal that is at least as smart or smarter than the people who are caging him, so you have to try to stay a couple of steps ahead of him.
Also, the jails were constructed from mason blocks that absorb everything. If you’ve ever been to an old jail, what’s the very first thing you notice when you walk in the door? The smell! Nothing but piss and Pine-Sol. It’s just a fact of life that we men all have bad aim in the bathroom, and concrete absorbs every body fluid plus every creepy, crawly germ there is — HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C, Staph, SARS, oozing sores from meth and heroin users — you name it, it’s a breeding ground. It’s unhealthy for guards and visitors as well as inmates, and you cannot get rid of that odor once it’s there.
You also can chisel, mark up, and tunnel through concrete. Steel, on the other hand, is easy to sterilize but hard to vandalize or cut through. So at Habersham Metal, we came up with hollow metal frames and doors, with the first fire-rated detention door using a [polycarbonate] security glazing, laminating each side with a kind of sheet glass that I’ve never seen defeated. It will hold up against billy clubs or battering rams, so it provides visibility while being attack-resistant. That step completely changed the whole industry, opened up a whole new concept of detention. Our quality-control standards — we tested the strength of our product with real situations from a detention environment, like four men jumping on a bunk and then banging it against doors and windows — eventually became the basis for the national standards of the American Society of Testing Materials. So, in the course of my career, I’ve seen us go from stick-built to modular, steel design and from bars to security glazing. Somebody requested the old-timey bars the other day, I guess for nostalgia or something, but they’re really not used any more, and Habersham Metal gets credit for helping phase those things out.
Q. Aside from the historical footnote that Georgia started as a penal colony, why do you think the northern part of the state has evolved into such a dynamic corridor of research and development?
A. A lot of it started with Jim Stapleton Sr. (founder of Habersham Metal), one of the smartest businessmen around — a visionary who trusted his employees with a lot of responsibility without micromanaging. He’d listen to any idea even if it were a stupid idea. See, we were back in the country, in the middle of nowhere up in the hills, and so dumb that we didn’t know we were not supposed to be able to do certain things. So there we were in the 1960s, using a computer to create a binary code, punched into paper tape, which contained a G code to operate our numeric control machines. Back then, computers were used strictly for bookkeeping if they were used at all, but we decided to experiment and apply them to our shopwork. We didn’t think anything about it — just saw a basic need and responded to it, which is what you do when you live in the country and have to be your own mechanic sometimes. But people would come from all around, shocked at the things we were doing to improve and streamline our product. It just grew from there. More industry and more criminal justice expertise took root from here down to Atlanta, and now we’re known for it around the world. We do business in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, all over, and I bring our visitors to Ma Gooch’s!
Q. What are some of the principles that guide your designs?
A. We all learn from experience, which is usually painful. We heard the news reports that in a holding cell in Michigan, some fellow who was just in there on a DUI got locked up with a murderer who pulled off the handicapped bar for the toilet and beat him to death. We paid attention to that and made sure that all of our fixtures are non-detachable and can’t be used for weapons. Also, our showerheads don’t jut out of the wall because those can be used to commit suicide, and we design edges so they don’t have any rims on them, for hiding contraband. The material that coats our cells is similar to what you find in a truck-bed it holds up against graffiti or whatever abuse inmates want to heap on it, which is more than you can imagine.
Q. Who are some unsung heroes in your line of work — besides the short-order cook at Ma Gooch’s?
A. Without a doubt, the county jailer is probably the most underpaid and unappreciated worker in the world. A lot of people use the words “jail” and “prison” interchangeably, but they’re not the same. A jail is a temporary holding cell and a lot of the time it doesn’t have the most thorough classification system. An old con might be used to the rituals of incarceration, but somebody thrown in jail on a Saturday night can get mighty volatile when those cuffs come off. On any given night, a county jailer doesn’t know if he’s dealing with Otis Campbell or Jeffrey Dahmer — or both together. We try to design products with that in mind, to help the jailer and the inmate and everybody involved by minimizing the potential for trouble.
Q. What are your projections for the next revolution in incarceration?
A. I’m no bleeding heart, but it does make me sad to see so many young people in cages, when they have the potential to do so much more, and there’s such a high recidivism rate. I honestly believe that maybe within my lifetime we will come up with some ethical way of altering behavior, of changing human nature for the better, removing that criminal impulse with a medicine or training, I don’t know. I know that sounds extremely far-fetched, but I’ve seen so much change in my lifetime that I’m hopeful. The truth is I would like to see my job go down the drain.