Prison Reform: Escaping Recidivism by Climbing the Skills Ladder

Over the next decade millions of experienced manufacturing professionals will retire; further exacerbating the skills gap crisis currently facing the industry.

To address this looming emergency, businesses, government and organizations like TMA are ramping up efforts to engage high school students, veterans, and career changers in order to try and steer them into lucrative careers in manufacturing.

As those populations are being pursued, another potential source is getting more and more attention: the incarcerated.

The high cost of recidivism

Without direction or preparation for careers outside of prison, 68 percent of the 1.5 million individuals in America’s prisons will be rearrested within three years. An additional 9 percent will be back in prison within five years.

This reality is not only dispiriting for inmates, it negatively affects their families, communities, and society as a whole, with over-burdened taxpayers yearly footing billions of dollars to maintain prison systems that are over-crowded due to recidivism.

The prison system is changing

The good news is the system is changing.

Last month, the Indiana Department of Correction in Madison, IN celebrated 44 female prisoners earning certifications from the American Welding Society, the Manufacturing Skill Standards Council, or the National Institute for Metalworking Skills. Working with a local community college, over 150 women prisoners have successfully obtained certification in computing, manufacturing and other areas in the past year.

“We have employers waiting” for students with those valued certifications, Warden Jan Davis told the Rushville Republican. “There is no stigma to having a criminal record … Skills are more important than a person’s past.”

Other states are following course

One by one, other states are following Indiana’s example.

After instituting similar skills training programs for prisoners, Texas’ prison recidivism rate dropped dramatically.

“In Texas we’ve changed a lot of laws and closed eight prisons,” Brooke Rollins, president of the Texas Public Policy Foundation told The Hill news site. “And the crime rate is down 31 percent over the last 10 years at a time when our population has exploded.”

The Trump Administration took what was working in these states and included them in the First Step Act, which the President recently signed into law.

“Two-thirds of the 650,000 people released from prison each year are arrested again within three years,” Trump said in January 2018. “We can help break this vicious cycle through job training, … mentoring and drug addiction treatment. … We’ll be very tough on crime, but we will provide a ladder of opportunity for the future.”

Chicago’s SAFER Foundation leads the way

For the last 44 years, Chicago’s SAFER Foundation has been working to prepare inmates for life changing career opportunities after serving prison sentences. Both SAFER Foundation and CARRE, the Council of Advisors to Reduce Recidivism through Employment, shared their findings in a white paper last fall:

• From 1978 to 2013, Illinois’ prison system grew by 330%
• In Fiscal Year 2017, Illinois taxpayers spent $1.4 billion on the Department of Corrections and $131 million on the Department of Juvenile Justice
• Annually, 30,000 inmates were released from the Illinois Department of Corrections and 70,000 discharged from the Cook County Jail.
• In Illinois, 4.1 million have arrest or conviction records that could diminish their employment opportunities.

They also found that stable employment drastically reduces an individual’s likelihood of returning to prison. The more prisoners are prepared with training and career opportunities, the more likely they will escape the downward spiral in which so many prisoners find themselves trapped.

During Fiscal Year 2016-2017, SAFER Foundation reports they were involved with 275 job placements among their clients – 113 of them in Chicago area manufacturing.

Those successes, SAFER Foundation says, provides basis for the state of Illinois to invest more in education services, employer engagement, entrepreneurship and apprenticeships for those once-incarcerated.

There is also a need to expand incentives for employers to hire former prisoners. Current state law grants $1,500 to employers that hire qualified persons recently released from prison. System reformers hope to see that credit rise to at least $2,400 for three years.

Climbing the skills ladder to escape prison forever

TMA’s Vice President of Education and Training Patrick Osborne says working with the SAFER Foundation has been beneficial for TMA and the people they’ve helped train over the years.

Prison reform and career training can be one part of resolving manufacturing’s skills gap challenge, Osborne said.

“Encouraging manufacturing as a career for those who’ve made poor choices in the past just doesn’t help provide badly-needed team members on manufacturers’ floors,” he said. “It can also set a new direction for a person’s life, as well as his or her family and community.”

And most importantly, as President Trump said, provide a ladder of opportunity for the future.

Originally published in TMA’s April/May 2019 News Bulletin.