Some 10 people in white, flesh-stained aprons and gloves stand over cutting boards at a long table, each busily slicing up pieces of an elk, its skinless hind quarter hanging from a metal hook. About 10 more elk quarters hang in queue along the wall, only a fraction of the meat this disassembly line will process today at H & H Meats in Missoula.
John Peterson, 71, the genial but no-nonsense owner of H & H, says a couple of these workers are residents at Missoula's Pre-Release Center on Mullan Road. But he doesn't say which ones, because, he says, "It's nobody's business...We show them the same respect we show any other employee."
For 20 years Peterson has hired pre-release workers during the busy fall hunting season, when H & H processes between 2,000 and 3,000 animals at its South Avenue facility. He employs as many as five every season, and estimates he's worked with about 100 since he bought the business in the late 1980s.
"The people down at pre-release, they very well know that if they have a certifiable meat cutter that has years of experience that he's got a job here," Peterson says.
Missoula's Pre-Release Center, one of six in the state, houses 92 men and 20 women, all felony offenders nearing the end of their sentence. The center's treatment coordinator, David Wiltfong, says because the residents are required to work and pay room and board, they seek out employers like Peterson, who benefit from the reliability of workers living under strict rules and regulations—not to mention the tax credits available for hiring felons.
"(Peterson) can see through the label put on people—and that they've earned committing felonies—but he's willing to give guys a chance," Wiltfong says.
"I don't ask what they did, what their problem was," Peterson says. "It's none of my affair...Every one of us, every single individual, had circumstances been different at some period in their life, could have had prison time. And anybody who says, 'Oh no, couldn't happen to me,' either has a very short memory or is very, very, very unusual."