Prisons are training inmates for the next generation of in-demand jobs

TRAINING SESSION: Vivian Rodgriguez participates during the training at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum security women's prison. Police agencies nationwide, including the New York Police Department, are using therapy dogs to help officers alleviate job-related stress. Jeenah Moon/For The Washington Post

COTTONWOOD, Idaho – Steven Hanson, 39, straddled Clyde the calf, ready to tag her ear. Clyde is a life-size model, and Hanson stood in a classroom, not a farmyard. Nevertheless, he rubbed her plush neck to soothe her nerves. He was restraining her, he explained, "just enough."

Kevin Rehder, who teaches dairy science and math at the North Idaho Correctional Institution, practically jumped into the air with delight. "Dr. Grandin again! This is her study!" he said, reminding the students of Temple Grandin's renowned work on calming cattle.

Hanson gave the ear tagger a practice squeeze, positioned it over the pliable ear and squeezed the handle. Pop! – Clyde had an identifying number.

Hanson has an identifying number of his own: his Idaho Department of Correction inmate ID number. And even after he gets out, he'll bear a label that usually slams employers' doors shut: felon.

But he's hoping that the career training he's getting in prison will help erase the stigma.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of prisoners take federally funded career and technical education courses. And postsecondary education in prison, both vocational and academic, will soon become more widespread: This perennially low-funded part of the education world will be getting more money, thanks to three decisions in Washington: the First Step Act criminal justice reforms, the newest version of the federal Perkins Act for career and technical education and, most notably, the recent expansion of Second Chance Pell college grants for prisoners.

That's good news, the evidence shows. Inmates who participate in correctional education – from GED certificates to college degrees and everything in between – are up to 43% less likely to return to prison, and such education provides a $5 return for every taxpayer dollar spent, according to the Rand Corp.

And experts agree that one of the most important things career training in prison can provide is a credential that's recognized on the outside. "We are a very credential-based society," said Ruth Delaney, associate initiative director for the Vera Institute of Justice.

So the more forward-thinking prison systems are ramping up certificates and apprenticeships, with the imprimatur of local colleges and of trade groups such as the National Center for Construction Education and Research. And they include a state much of the country rarely thinks about: Idaho.

Idaho's state prison population – 8,775 people as of June 2020 – might look small. But its per capita imprisonment rate is in the top 10, with roughly the same racial disparities as the rest of the country, according to the Sentencing Project, the Vera project and the American Citizen Liberties Union.

In recent years, according to state reports, prison was just plain warehousing for around 30% of Idaho inmates: They were back in custody within three years of release. And the system houses many people for whom education hasn't worked: 29% to 35% come in without a high school diploma or equivalency, said Timothy Leigh, the Idaho Department of Correction's reentry manager.

Yet Idaho is making a difference, with classes like Rehder's. It's one of more than 30 career-technical options across the state's nine prison campuses, and most are programs specifically designed to match up to real-world jobs such as welding, specialty construction and machining.

A short drive into the dusty hills outside Boise, the Idaho State Correctional Center's cinder block Vocational 4 classroom looks simultaneously spacious and crowded. It houses metal cabinets plastered with warning signs, a roof segment in cutaway, tools in a caged area, worktables and a computer numerical control (CNC) programmable woodcutting machine.

Carpentry is one of five apprenticeships now offered at ISCC, along with electrical, masonry, janitorial and teacher's assistant programs. All are registered with the federal government, which gives participants the freedom to move across state lines after release. ISCC started the programs in the last three years and just got a grant to design more, Leigh said.

These programs are postsecondary; participants must have a GED certificate or be pursuing one. They also must have a good behavior record. Some state prisons, though not Idaho's, require that inmates be close to release, so the skills they learn will be up to date. Other states make sure prisoners aren't scheduled to leave too soon, because otherwise they won't have time to finish a training program. (Women's prisons, which tend to be smaller, have fewer programs than prisons for men.)

Down the street are the Correctional Industries shops, often a dead-end workplace in other prisons, symbolized by the mindless chore of making license plates.

Yes, the license plate process is repetitive, zipping out 10,000 to 15,000 plates a week. Yes, its primary purpose is to make money for Correctional Industries, because the complex has to pay for itself. No, the skills involved aren't as remunerative down the road as those from the metalworking or CNC shops. But it's a production line, and overseeing a production line "is a marketable skill," Leigh said. So this license-plate program offers a 4,000-hour quality assurance apprenticeship, registered with the U.S. Department of Labor.

Most of Correctional Industries is dedicated to higher-paying professions, however. Philip Walker, 45, sat at a desk unit that looks like it came from a mass-market office furniture supply company but was made by Correctional Industries workers themselves, down to the decorative panel etched with an American flag. Walker has such a cheerful smile that it's hard to imagine he's been in prison since he was 18. At that time, he couldn't read a tape measure and could barely read words. In the CNC apprenticeship, "I found my niche," he said. "We're always given opportunities to come up with new ideas." He has since completed two apprenticeships, in CNC operation and cabinetmaking, logging more than 10,000 hours.

Walker goes before the parole board around the end of 2022. "The last guy who got out from this position is making 28 bucks an hour," he said. "I'm about to be successful!"

Walker's success depends on employers setting aside long-standing fears and stereotypes. "We have this population in our prisons that have a lot of skills ... but no one will (hire) them because they're felons," said Leigh, the reentry manager.

The tight job market may help, as employers need more workers. Beyond that, Leigh and his department educate employers through a website with former prisoners' success stories; employer tours and even job fairs at the prisons. While there, companies can see that the prison's instructors, shops and training materials are up to date.

They "go in and see what people are doing, speak to them, realize that these are just people," Delaney of the Vera Institute said. "It's much easier to see how you would hire this person, especially when they have the skills that you need as an employer."

A local manufacturer toured Correctional Industries in July. "They were very excited to see that we had people trained on this," Matt DeTour, a job training specialist staffer, said, gesturing to a machine called a CNC press brake. The manufacturer has hired one former prisoner and is optimistic about his success, a spokeswoman said, asking that the company's name not be shared since its experience with the program is still limited.

The career-tech educators in Idaho's correctional system try to align training programs to what local companies need. Hence the dairy class. Idaho is the third-biggest dairy-producing state in the country, and the farms are thirsty for workers. By later this year, 100 men will have completed the dairy course since Rehder started it in March 2019, he said.

Some people criticize taxpayers' covering the cost to train inmates. But DeTour and Leigh argue that if the training keeps these men employed after their release, it's well worth it to society.

The bigger problem is that the best programs don't serve many inmates. Michigan's esteemed Vocational Village program is widely considered the national model. One of its sites features a 45-foot-high scaffold to teach tree-trimming for utility companies, a career with rising demand. To date, Vocational Village boasts an extraordinary 2% recidivism rate, said Chris Gautz, a Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman.

And yet at any given time it can serve only 450 of Michigan's roughly 32,000 state prisoners, Gautz said. It doesn't have the space or the money to expand the education areas.

And prisons struggle to afford teachers. Career-tech instructors are hard to find even for conventional school and college classrooms, because they can earn more as workers than as teachers.

To DeTour, the men he works with are colleagues – whether they're wearing an employee's or a prisoner's ID badge: "We just try to do everything we can to treat everybody with as much respect as humanly possible."

The men repeatedly said they felt that respect most strongly in their classrooms.

"Just coming here, sometimes, it doesn't even feel like we're in prison," said Greg Sanchez-Chavez Jr. in Vocational 4 at Idaho State Correctional Center. "It's just like a regular workplace."

Nicholas Linn, 30, another inmate there, has taken carpentry, masonry, clerical skills – every class he can. "I've never liked myself before prison," he said. "This is the first time I've ever felt like I had a chance."

While tagging Clyde the training cow, Steven Hanson imagined going to college. Maybe he could start a cattle farm someday, he said. Maybe he could hire veterans with PTSD. Yes, "there's that stigma of being labeled a felon," he said. But he's using his prison time "to become a productive member of society."

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