Man of Steel

This is a story about a North Georgia man who, over the years, has seen the inside of cells in jails and prisons throughout North America and the Caribbean. We’ll call him “Mike Smith.”

Despite his considerable experience with prison cells, Mike Smith, one of Brenau University’s newest members of the board of trustees, openly uses the name “Mike Smith.” First, his name actually is Mike Smith. Second, he spends time in prison cells because he builds them. He heads SteelCell Inc. in Baldwin, Georgia, the only company in the Southeast that manufactures prefabricated steel modular prison and jail cells. The company owns about 80 percent of the market in that industry in the United States.

Smith readily concedes that his business capitalizes on one of America’s least brag-worthy facts: Although the United States has only 4.4 percent of the global population, it incarcerates about 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. However, he takes a longer, more socially responsible view of his corporate mission than the idea that his company provides secure warehousing for inmates.

“There is nothing wrong with treating an inmate humanely, no matter what his sentence is or what his crime is,” Smith said. “You have to remember that the vast majority of people we send to prison get out one day. Jail itself should not be the punishment. It should be the rehabilitation. Our job is to help them settle down, do their time and come out better.”

His company builds cells that address many problems that have dogged penal systems for generations. The products, now installed throughout the United States and in the Caribbean, provide more security for the inmates themselves against rape and other acts of violence perpetrated by other inmates and prison staff. They help stop the rapid spread of disease so prevalent in prisons through better sanitation and ventilation.

Also, Smith argues that his products help save taxpayers money. SteelCell products weigh about a fifth as much as competitive modular concrete products that require stronger, more expensive foundations. Because of the Lego-like modular nature of Smith’s units, just about any kind of structure offers promise as an inexpensive correctional facility. In Morgan County, Georgia, local officials using SteelCell products have converted an old factory that once made compact discs into a jail. Another location is converting an abandoned Wal-Mart into a 250-bed facility.

What is Smith’s interest in Brenau?

Both Smith and his wife, Dixie Truelove, grew up in northeast Georgia. Although neither really had any strong connection to the university, they have been longtime financial supporters, volunteer workers and patrons of arts and theater programs.

“This community has always been our home,” Smith said, “so those who make it better are going to get our help. Brenau is a real asset to this community, so it is just natural that I get more involved.”

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