Program moves people from prison to paychecks


A new vocational training program that launched this spring will prepare prisoners for jobs upon their release.

Vocational Village, which is housed at the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, offers prisoners the opportunity to learn in-demand job skills in the areas of welding, plumbing, electrical trades, building trades, automotive repair and CNC machining.

Chris Gautz, public information officer for the Michigan Department of Corrections, said Vocational Village is already a highly coveted program among inmates.

Gautz said prisoners have to apply to be part of Vocational Village, which includes writing an essay. They also have to be misconduct-free for a number of months to be enrolled in the program.

“About 200 prisoners are part of the Village right now,” Gautz said. “All of them have two years or less on their sentences. Once they parole and move back into the community — hopefully, into jobs we’ve trained them in — then we will bring in new prisoners to replace them.”

While work and vocational training isn’t new to the Michigan prison system, Vocational Village is a more intense program. Rather than working a couple of hours a day at a job in the prison or in a trades program, Vocational Village enrollees work a full eight-hour day and often have homework assigned for after hours.

Gautz said it provides prisoners with a realistic experience.

“For a lot of the guys, they’ve never had a job,” he said. “They may have been arrested as a teenager.”

Gautz said there is already an expectation that the Vocational Village model will be implemented in another prison soon.

“The Michigan Senate, in its budget proposal, included $3 million so we could expand it to another facility,” he said. “It’s still early in the process, but it’s a good sign the legislature sees the value in it and wants to see us expand it to more prisoners.”

Gautz said the Vocational Village model is part of Michigan’s focus on re-entry.

“In Michigan, we consider your first day of prison your first day of re-entry,” he said. “We really drill into prisoners and staff that we are re-entry focused all the way through.”

He said as part of that effort, all prisoners without a high school diploma are expected to earn a GED while in prison.

“You are going to be required to get your GED to be paroled,” he said. “We have several thousand prisoners earning a GED.

“Once they have it, or if they already have it, then they can do college programs if the prison they are at offers those. They will also be able to apply, then, for our vocational programs.”

While the MDOC is focused on re-entry efforts, there are still many individuals leaving prison without the skills they need to land a job.

Jacob Maas, CEO of Area Community Services Employment & Training Council, which has a contract with the state to oversee administration of prisoner re-entry programs in Kent, Allegan, Muskegon, Ottawa and Oceana counties, noted there is a long waiting list for the Vocational Village program.

“They are doing some great work inside the prison,” he said. “But there is only one Vocational Village so the waiting list is quite high. I’ve heard there are 500 on the waiting list.”

It’s also unknown how many of those inmates will be released into Kent County upon parole. Maas said approximately 900 parolees return to Kent County on an annual basis. He did not know how many of them had gone through some kind of career training while in prison, but he said it would have been a small percentage of the 900.

ACSET helps connect former prisoners, known as returning citizens, with resources after their release, including with organizations like Hope Network, which provides career development services to inmates in the community.

Lynda Sweigart, executive director of workforce development at Hope Network, said her organization worked with 95 individuals last year who were trying to return to work, and this year it’s on track to go beyond that number, having already served 77 individuals to date.

Sweigart said as part of the process, returning citizens go through a career assessment.

“We work with them to develop a picture of their skills, aptitude, interests, and past skills or work,” she said.

She said the organization provides a number of career readiness programs to help get people employment ready. These programs include soft skills, like showing up on time, interacting with colleagues and supervisors, and figuring out how to deal with life issues.

Hope Network also offers entry-level work opportunities through Hope Industries, which subcontracts work from other businesses to help its clients earn job experience.

“It’s an opportunity to build their employability and work history, and practice the things they’ve learned in workshops or counseling with work development specialists,” Sweigart said. “When we are working with them to find that competitive job, they have recent work history they can present to the employer.”

Sweigart said there are also opportunities for employers in the community who may want to hire someone with a criminal background but are fearful about doing so.

“We offer paid transitional work experiences,” Sweigart added.

She said Hope Network will serve as the employer of record for a period of time, while a business tests out an employee.

“Typically, these community-based employers will make the decision within 30 to 90 days to hire, based on performance,” she said.

She said the transitional employment program has a 75 percent success rate, which she noted is very good. “When you look at benchmarks across the country, it’s really a robust number,” she said.

Sweigart also said employers can look into bonding opportunities, which reduces their risk in hiring someone with a criminal record.

She said returning citizens still face a lot of challenges when reentering society, and a job is an important avenue to keeping them from returning to prison.

Michigan is currently considering a package of bills aimed at reducing recidivism rates and reforming parole guidelines. Among the bills is SB 946, which would create a work opportunity employer reimbursement program to provide incentives to employers who hire returning citizens.

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