Preparing inmates for the workforce

Women inmates are trained as welders through a program at Ivy Tech Community College’s Madison campus. (Photos: Ivy Tech)

Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana takes its mission to educate everyone in the community seriously: Several of its campuses are carrying out training programs to help prison inmates gain workforce skills so they can lead productive lives when they are released.

The inmate training relates to the Indiana governor’s workforce agenda, says Molly Dodge, chancellor of the Ivy Tech’s Madison campus.

There are 27,000 incarcerated people in Indiana, and an unemployment rate hovers between 2 percent and 4 percent, Dodge says. “Employers are in desperate need of skilled workers.”

To address that need, she says, the governor challenged the state’s corrections department to identify offenders who could earn industry-recognized certifications that would qualify them for work at a self-sufficient wage upon release.

The Madison campus partnered with a women’s prison, the Madison Correctional Facility, to discuss how to meet that call and determined that “manufacturing could be a felony-friendly occupation that women would be particularly good at,” Dodge says. They focused on training welders and computer numerical control (CNC) operators, which are well-paying occupations in high demand.

The Madison program started with an initial cohort of 10 women during the 2017 winter break. All of them completed the course and earned a certificate from the American Welding Society.

The women qualified for work release, which means they are housed in a different building on prison grounds so they can be more easily transported off the facility during the day for work or school.

The training was provided at Ivy Tech, but to qualify, the women had to participate in a transitions class focusing on soft skills taught at the correctional facility by an Ivy Tech instructor.

By the end of June, the college expects 48 women to earn certificates in welding or CNC. The college is in the process of securing additional funding to add more cohorts this summer.

Satisfied employers

The college set up employment agreements with the prison and found employers willing to hire the inmates while they complete their sentences. “Employers are warming up to the idea of hiring these women,” Dodge says, noting that there has been “very good feedback on the ones already hired.”

Madison Tool & Die, which hired two inmates, issued a statement calling the CNC training they received excellent, putting them on a faster pace for promotions and wage increases.

A statement from Faurecia, a global manufacturer of auto parts that hired most of the welders, says “they are setting a good example of work ethic and timeliness.” Vehicle Service Group had equally positive comments about the inmate it hired, noting that an inmate it hired “has proved herself to be a dedicated, competent, responsible employee.”

Before, these women would have been “just like any other applicant with a felony in their background,” Dodge says. “Their odds of getting hired are significantly increased if they earn a certificate.”

A welding student at Ivy Tech Community College is learning her craft while serving time in prison.

Leslie Hauk, who will be released in November after serving 23 years, doesn’t want to  be defined by her past and appreciates being given a second chance. “Make or break, we’re prepared with skills,” she says, “but without the opportunity and realistic way to hit the ground running, the challenges can be overwhelming.”

Success at an outside job can help inmates petition for early release at their parole hearings. “The positive momentum they are having at work helps their case that they will successfully re-enter society,” Dodge says.

A path to self sufficiency

The Ivy Tech campus at Evansville began a pilot program last year with male inmates in work release at Dubois County Community Corrections. Those who complete the six-week program, which was conducted at the Jasper, Ind., Chamber of Commerce, can earn a nationally recognized certificate that qualifies them for job as a an entry-level production technician in an auto factory or other manufacturing facility, says Craig Jefferson, director of workforce alignment at the college.

The certificate requires passage of four assessments: safety, quality, maintenance awareness, and production and teams. Four inmates took the course and three of them earned the certificate. The fourth student should eventually get a certificate when he gets a chance to retake two of the assessments he failed to pass.

Certain Dubois County inmates close to their release dates are allowed to leave the prison during the day for training or jobs but must return by 9:30 p.m.

Taking the course was a “no brainer,” Terry Windels, who was serving time for driving while intoxicated, told the Dubois County Herald. “They were offering free education.”

After he completed the program, Windel received a promotion at the furniture company where he works. “I’m going to wind up coming out of jail better off than when I went in,” he said. He plans to enroll at Ivy Tech to pursue a degree in programming and logic controls and eventually become a production manager. The production technician certificate is part of an advanced automation and robotics program at Ivy Tech.

The pilot was funded by a grant from the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs to the Perry County Development Corporation, says Jefferson. He would like to expand the program if he can find the funding.

Some companies are not willing to hire people with criminal record, but others will, he says. “There’s more openness about that now. When there’s full employment, they will hire someone who can pass a drug test and show up on time.”

“They need a second chance,” Jefferson adds. “If you really want to rehabilitate someone, you need to give them the skills to get a job. If they come out and don’t have a job, they are likely to go back to criminal activity.”

A college’s mission

Ivy Tech’s Terre Haute campus is starting its sixth year of a partnership with the federal  prison in Terre Haute to train inmates as diesel power truck technicians. The facility houses men convicted of white-collar crimes, such as insurance fraud or monetary crimes, says Rod Dowell, workforce alignment consultant at Ivy Tech.

The community college sends an instructor and equipment the prison to teach the theory of combustion engines, brake systems and drive trains, with the goal of helping inmates qualify for jobs repairing trucks. There are two cohorts, with 15 students each, running at a time. To qualify for the program, inmates need a high school diploma or GED and a good behavior record.

The inmates don’t get an industry certification because the college doesn’t yet have the funding for the required assessments, Dowell says. But they do receive a certificate that can be applied to prior learning credits if they enroll later in Ivy Tech. Meanwhile, some of them work on repairing prison buses.

A trucking company in Indianapolis has hired a few of the participants who’ve been released, but even though there is a low unemployment rate, Dowell concedes, “it’s been somewhat of a challenge to get folks to pass the background check.”

He is trying to convince companies to not rely on whether job applicants check the box indicating they’ve been convicted of a felony but to “dive deeper into their history, without lowering their standards.”

Dowell believes it’s part of the college’s mission to educate inmates. “From a community perspective, we don’t want to just cater to the general public; we want to help all people get skills and get jobs.”

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.