Beyond License Plates: Prepping Inmates for Life After Prison
Indiana Writers Group column for July 26 and thereafter
by Andrea Neal
On July 17, inmates at the new Plainfield Educational Re-Entry Facility began earning college credits in one of three tracks intended to help them land jobs after prison.
The hospitality track will prepare them to work in hotels, restaurants and service industries. The logistics management track will open doors in purchasing and supply, transportation and distribution. The entrepreneurship track will teach skills needed to operate or start a small business.
The prisoners will spend 426 hours in a classroom and be eligible for 27 credit hours that could be applied toward an associate’s degree. By the time they’re done, says Tom Darling of Ivy Tech Community College, they will be prepared for jobs in growth areas in Indiana’s economy.
In and of itself, that’s not revolutionary. Indiana prisons routinely offer inmates the chance to complete high school and college coursework before sending them back to society. In-prison employment, from custodial duties to making license plates, is also common.
What makes the Plainfield initiative uncommon is that its primary goal is success. As it is now, the typical inmate gets a few bucks and a pat on the back when released. According to the Indiana Department of Correction, 40 percent of Indiana prisoners return to prison within three years. “If we can reduce our rate of recidivism by 5 percent, we save over $80 million for the taxpayers of Indiana,” says DOC Commissioner J. David Donahue.
Plainfield will serve as the final stop for select convicts about to be released into the eight-county area including Plainfield and Indianapolis. And Ivy Tech is just one of a half dozen partners in what the DOC is calling “the nation’s first re-entry facility.” The inmates will spend the last 12 to 18 months of their sentences receiving not just vocational training but practical assistance obtaining ID cards and driver’s licenses and finding jobs that pay better than minimum wage. They will be counseled about state programs that can ease their transition, such as Medicaid, childcare subsidies, food stamps and housing assistance.
It is a model based on the very best research about what works in prison re-entry – a win-win situation for inmates and taxpayers.
One of the reasons people turn to crime is because they have no income and little to lose. About a third of prisoners are unemployed at time of arrest. Between one-third and two-thirds of inmates earn less than $1,000 in the month prior to their arrest. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 40 percent of prisoners have not completed high school or attained a GED, the equivalent of a high school diploma. The comparable figure for the general population is 18 percent.
Even when they get job training in prison, the deck is stacked against ex-convicts, according to a 2004 report by the Urban Institute. Given a choice between former inmates and other disadvantaged groups, such as welfare recipients, employers prefer the latter. In one study, researchers sent pairs of individuals to apply for the same entry-level job. The applicants had comparable credentials, but one had a criminal record and one did not. The ex-con received 50 percent fewer job offers, 64 percent fewer if he were black.
The Plainfield facility, which currently houses 179 inmates known as “residents,” hopes to overcome this rational discrimination by eliminating some of the red flags that come with former prisoners, Donahue says.
For example, prisoners will get the chance to open and manage their own bank accounts in collaboration with Lincoln Bank. They will receive instruction in financial responsibility. ARAMARK Correctional Services will help inmates interested in the food services industry to get practical experience. The Department of Workforce Development will assign staff members to assist residents with job placement after release.
The final piece of the model is community support. Darling, executive director of workforce and economic development for Ivy Tech, believes that will come with time and experience.
“If you look at it from the employer’s perspective, if they have a candidate who comes to them who has the training the employer needs, it’s a much smaller risk for the employer,” says Darling. “We hope employers will say, ‘Maybe you’ve made some mistakes in the past, but you’ve got the skills I need.’ “
Ninety-seven percent of Indiana’s 24,000 prisoners will return to live among us. Finding them jobs is in all of our best interests.
Andrea Neal, former editorial page editor of the Indianapolis Star, is adjunct scholar and columnist with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org