Vocational Village skilled trades training to be offered at second state prison

After signs of early success with a new job training program at a state prison in Ionia, Michigan corrections administrators are preparing to open a second, larger site at a prison near Jackson.

Expanding the Vocational Village program to the Parnall Correctional Facility, a minimum-security prison near Jackson, means more than 200 additional inmates in Michigan will be eligible to receive specialized training in skilled trades fields while incarcerated. The first site opened this year at Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, with 180 inmates enrolled.

The program is unique from other job training programs offered in Michigan prisons in that all participants are housed within the same housing unit. Michigan Department of Corrections administrators say the goal is to create a supportive environment for inmates that can reduce distractions and misconduct. Prisoners qualify by being within two years of their earliest release date and free of misconduct citations.

Vocational Village is the newest piece of the corrections department’s efforts to prepare convicted felons for post-release employment. At a time when Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration has emphasized skilled trades careers to stave off a labor shortage as current workers approach retirement, and amid a broader movement nationally to “ban the box” that requires ex-offenders to list their felony records on job applications, the program is gaining traction with some employers.

An inmate enrolled in the Ionia program recently lined up a job for when he is paroled by September, if not sooner, department spokesman Chris Gautz said. He said the inmate, who was not yet ready to have his name released, was hired by a welding company in Detroit.

“The goal is that everybody who graduates from the Village and is paroled walks out with a job,” Gautz said.

At Parnall, inmates will receive training in automotive technology, masonry, carpentry, plumbing, electrical, CNC machining, truck driving, forklift operation and robotics. The program’s expansion is being funded with a $2 million budget boost for the 2017 fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1. Vocational Village’s $35.8 million budget includes money from Michigan’s general fund, federal dollars and other funding sources.

The facility will be housed in a 150,000-square-foot space that once was home to a prison store and factory. An opening date hasn’t been set, but it will be after the start of the new fiscal year, Gautz said. Like Ionia, the Jackson program will include training in “soft skills,” including employment counseling and conflict resolution, the department said.

Participants will earn industry-specific certifications that will allow them to work in their selected fields, and corrections staff are working to get their qualifications in front of human resources managers.

Gautz said the department will have a booth at an advanced manufacturing expo next week in Grand Rapids, where they will share resumes of all Vocational Village participants who will be paroled between now and November. That includes about a dozen prisoners, about half of whom will be paroled to Southeast Michigan, he said.

The Vocational Village website includes employer resources, including information about a federal bonding program that acts as business insurance against loss of money or property due to an employee’s actions, and federal tax credit programs for employers who hire ex-felons.

“There’s incentives for the employers to hire them,” Gautz said. “The business community (members) are really some of our best advocates.”

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