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Theres a popular prison rumor about The Price is Right. Word in the cells is that the magnate who keeps prisons supplied with uniforms and toiletries is none other than Bob Barker, the game shows former charmer of a host.
Prison lore says Barker got into the business to serve his incarcerated son, according to the rumor busters at Snopes.com. And its a good story: Just this year, the television personality received a postcard from dozens of female prisoners in Las Vegas.
They wanted to show their gratitude, perhaps for the nonflammable mattresses, contraband-proof clear toothpaste and un-weaponizable toothbrushes dozens of prison supplies, after all, are stamped with the famous name. Bob Barkers office, now well acquainted with the prison rumors, knew just where to send the letter.
He sent it on to me, explained Bob Barker of Fuquay-Varina, an attentive and friendly 78-year-old man. It must have had 50 signatures on it thanking me for all the things that I have provided.
Barker founded Americas leading detention supplier 40 years ago, and he details his story in a co-authored book titled Im in Cells: The Captivating Story of Bob Barker and the Bob Barker Company.
He also has served several local elected positions and is the namesake of two Campbell University facilities.
Today, his companys Fuquay-Varina factory employs about 175 people. During a recent visit, the silk-screening crew was preparing an order of tens of thousands of numbered white underwear bottoms, while others assembled a huge spread of products that Barker often designs himself.
A typical challenge for Barker: Prisoners would make shanks take a toothbrush, take a razor blade and slit the toothbrush, where theyd cut your throat, he recalled, sitting in his office with glasses and pens tucked in his shirt pocket. The solution he devised: short, hard-to-sharpen toothbrush handles.
Over the decades, the company has made business ties in more than 200 countries and, despite a major increase in competition, has remained atop the industry so well known, Barker says with some pride, that the military turned to Fuquay-Varina for jumpsuits and supplies for the Guantanamo Bay prison for terror suspects.
Nuclear weapons, local elections
Barker was a child of the Great Depression born to cotton mill workers in Cherryville, N.C. He began work at an early age and was a newspaper delivery boy by the time he was 8. Thats where he and his brother learned about competition together they roughhoused to force rival paperboys off their turf.
Outselling the competition as a multi-million-dollar correctional supply company is not as simple as fighting out behind the store, but I learned early on that you have to take competition seriously, Barker wrote in his autobiography.
Competition isnt the companys guiding value, though. Barker offers his employees a long list of amenities, including in-house church services and an athletic program that has many of his crew wearing pedometers daily.
Employees are our No. 1 asset, he said. Its not the customers, its not the business its our employees.
He picked up his business philosophy through a series of ventures that included employment at a nuclear weapons plant in Aiken, S.C.; a stint as a door-to-door China and crystal salesman; ownership of a Cary department store; and several years as owner of the Western Wake Herald, now the Apex Herald.
Writing for his paper led him to the town boardroom and a successful 1967 run for Apex mayor. (As a journalist in such a small town, writing objective stories about my candidacy was a real challenge, but I always worked really hard to be fair, his book states.)
Bob Barker later would serve a 1973-74 term as a Republican state senator, sometimes alongside a Democrat of the same name. His campaign signs read: When you vote for Bob Barker, make sure its the right Bob Barker.
But it wasnt any of his campaigning and politicking that brought Barker to the world of jails and prisons: It was a venerable icy drink.
Slushies to cells
The Bob Barker Company, now known for handcuffs and restraint jackets, started off selling slushy-making equipment in 1972. It eventually became a restaurant-supply company and soon enough was landing lucrative contracts with state government.
Barker explored the jail business in the early 1980s with a single-page list of products that he sent around North Carolina. And when the company nationally distributed a 185-page catalog, the phone lines just about burned up, with orders for cell locks and toothpaste swamping the small operation.
With its foot in the cell door, Barker said, the company grew exponentially. Barker, a notorious spendthrift, also liked to get his hands on the production line he would prototype new products by sewing new sheets himself or lighting mattresses aflame in tests on the company lawn.
I have memories, definitely, of he and my mother trying to break different products and see how they could be made into weapons, and what could be made to make them unbreakable, said Nancy Barker Johns, one of two Barker kids who grew up working afternoons in the office.
The local businessman had plenty of room to experiment his business was tapping into a booming market, breaking 80 percent growth and $3 million in revenue in 1987. The company had, Barker wrote, a growing and captive audience.
Ideally, one would never like to profit from a societal problem or human weakness, but we did, Barkers book reads. One of the main reasons we had struck gold ... was the growing drug culture of the 1970s and 1980s.
While Barker believes in the moral basis of imprisonment as a punishment for crime, his view on the industry does have some nuances. Theres the issue, for example, of striped uniforms.
Yes, Barker will sell a sheriff a classic, work-gang style black-and-white prison jumper. But he wont be happy about it.
By Barkers standards, the solid-colored uniform is more fair to inmates than the cartoonish outfits of old.
Pin stripes are very popular in a lot of rural areas. The sheriff loves em because the people like them, he said. Barker said that as he gets older, he wants to push down the demand for his products. Barkers company in fiscal 2010 sent $2 million to the local Bob Barker Foundation, a group his son Robert first dreamed up, with a goal of reducing the rates at which former inmates return to jail.
That year the nonprofit put most of the money into reserves and donated about $116,000 to about 30 nonprofits that year mostly churches, plus a police organization, food charities, Wake Tech Community College, with the largest donation of about $31,000 going to an anti-recidivism group called Prison Fellowship in Erwin, N.C.
The nonprofit is still searching for partners and laying a path for the future, and may soon announce more detailed plans.
A lot of people question us about that, Why do you want to reduce your business? Barker said. I feel like theres a lot of people in jail, that theres an opportunity to help, and to guide them away from a life of crime after they get out of prison, and I think its a duty of our society to help them in any way we can.