Would you hire a convict? In early May of 2019, representatives from GLTPA and MAT accompanied the Michigan Wood Innovation Team headed up by Don Peterson and MDNR Marketing Specialist David Neumann, on a tour of the Michigan Department of Corrections facility in Jackson, Michigan. The purpose of the tour was to learn about the prison’s “Vocational Village Paroling Students” program to determine if there are possible avenues for the program to provide training for employment in the forest industry.
The Jackson prison houses level 1 through level 5 inmates and it was a bit of process to get in the prison and more importantly, make sure we’d get out after the tour. It’s an uncanny feeling when all the sets of doors were closed behind us and we entered the outdoor yard of the prison. Even though none of the guards carry weapons it’s still a prison, and I’ve never seen so much shiny barbed wire in my life.
After touring some of the grounds we proceeded to the “Vocational Village” where inmates had a variety of trades to choose for which they could be trained. These trades included CDL driver training, mechanics, construction and metal working and all the associated variations of each trade. Before choosing a trade, the inmates go through a very rigorous process to qualify for the vocational program. The process includes meeting with several counselors to determine their interests and how well suited they are for the program.
The equipment within the vocational facility is state of the art. Several employers work with the prison system to provide equipment and data for the types of skills needed for employment. In turn this partnership helps inmates succeed when released from the prison system.
As we toured the facility, we could interact with several of the inmates and ask questions. It was very apparent most, if not all, were very proud of their accomplishments as they are certified in their respective trades. One inmate in the mechanics program had several certifications including diesel engine repair and was currently working on applying modern electronic systems to an older engine. The CDL program is taught with the use of a simulator and classroom instruction. Because the prison cannot have vehicles within prison walls, they are not able to test drivers, however the inmate passage of the CDL driver test once released, is close to 100% successful. Correctional facility employees did say they are working to get a truck inside the prison to teach hands, walk around truck inspections, however the truck would have to be disabled by removing the driveshafts so no one could use the truck to escape.
When finished with “Vocational Village” we moved on to a conference room to discuss how forestry might fit in to the inmate program. The low hanging fruit, so to speak, is that truck drivers and mechanics are becoming available for hire. One of the potential trainings discussed was log loader operation. While it seems like an easy skill to teach, having the training in a prison presents issues we’ve never thought about. We were informed there are times when equipment must be altered slightly in order that no inmate be given an opportunity to escape before his time is served.
For instance, no gas is allowed in the prison restricting the types of engines that could run equipment for training purposes. Since many log loaders are powered by stationary electric motors this is not a problem. Another hurdle is having enough room to keep the loader away from any fencing so an inmate couldn’t pick up a log, shimmy up the loader and across the log to escape. That’s something most of us would never think about but prison officials have to all the time. If loader operation could be taught it would serve as a basis to train harvester and forwarder operators. Once a person understands basic loader operation, they can run almost any type of forestry equipment that has a boom. Another goal would to be provide chainsaw and sawmill training as well as tree identification. While these types of classes may take some time to develop, they are possibilities.
All in all, we were very impressed with the “Vocational Village” program and investigation is ongoing to find a Wisconsin program with similar attributes. Beyond being taught their respective trades, inmates are also taught money management, personal skills and how to be open and honest when doing a job interview. To date the Jackson facility has 146 inmates who have finished the program with 136 of them being placed in very well-paying jobs with the remainder waiting for job placement. It is also worthy to mention that once inmates are selected to be in the job program, they are housed with other inmates in the program in order to be in a positive environment of support. As a side note, the inmates can earn up to $2.56 per day if they meet all the requirements of their program. Several inmates who have been placed in the workforce are making as much as $35.00 per hour in the auto industry and are now productive members of society.
Many people make mistakes in life as is evidenced by the number of inmates throughout the prison system. Having a second chance at life is not always easy to come by and I can assure you the folks who developed this program have had to work very hard bringing it to fruition. Perhaps this is one of those times the forest industry can play a key role in those second chances for the betterment of society.
Until next month,