State agencies team up to help offenders find work
BY BROOKS TAYLOR
Mt. Pleasant News
Statistics don’t lie, it is said.
Taking that to heart, national studies show that 95 percent of people in the penal system today will be released, according to Andrea Wright, the Mt. Pleasant Correction facility executive officer and spokeswoman.
To aid offenders’ transition back into society, a pair of state agencies — the Iowa Department of Corrections and Iowa Workforce Development — are teaming up to ease the apprehension for the inmate re-entering society. The program is open to all offenders, and offenders receive the minimum prison wage for participation.
The two agencies hosted an informational seminar, “The Untapped Workforce,” Thursday at the Mt. Pleasant Correctional Facility. Twenty-five people, representing 10 local and area industries and businesses, attended to listen and learn.
Mt. Pleasant’s event falls on the heels of similar events in other communities, Anamosa, Newton and Ft. Dodge, all with medium or minimum-security correctional facilities, Wright remarked.
“We are working toward educating employers in the area about the benefits of hiring people who are incarcerated,” Wright explained. “One in nine men in the United States has been in the criminal justice system at one time (probation, parole, incarceration, etc.).”
“We want them (offenders) to be productive when released,” she added.
In order to be productive, offenders need three major assets, Wright said.
Those three include a community setting and a good support system; appropriate place to go home; and either an opportunity for education or employment.
Iowa must be doing something correctly because Wright said Iowa has one of the lowest return-to-prison rates in the United States. “People are released and they don’t come back.”
Mt. Pleasant’s City Council, at its last regular meeting on Nov. 9, approved a 28E agreement with the Department of Corrections to use offenders as workers at various times. City officials indicated that the public works and park and recreation departments would likely be the two departments making use of the additional workers.
City Administrator Brent Schleisman said the city has enlisted the use of inmates for various duties during the past several decades. “A couple of decades ago, they did all the cemetery mowing for us and most recently, they helped in the move of city hall from West Monroe to East Monroe Street.”
Schleisman said the relationship has been top-notch. “It has been very positive, they are very good workers and their supervisors are great. They work hard and seem to enjoy it. It has been nothing but a real success.”
The offender work model rolled out yesterday at the seminar was tied to the DOC Apprenticeships Program. The program includes the following areas of labor:
Welding, materials coordinator, electrostatic powder coating technician, upholsterer, maintenance repairer, cook, housekeeper, computer operator, fabricator-metal.
Also, refrigeration and air conditioning maintenance, cabinet maker, plumber, painter, carpenter, landscape technician, baker and screen printer.
Wright has no doubt the program will be a success. “We are lucky in Mt. Pleasant because we have some really good businesses here. We are fortunate to have production industries that need workers. …We want to be a good neighbor.”
All offenders chosen for work assignments, Wright said, will be carefully reviewed. “We want to make sure they won’t cause problems. We will look at their disciplinary record and skill set as part of the criteria. They will be carefully scrutinized.”
Asked whether supervisors would accompany offenders to the job site, Wright said that had not yet been determined. “It all depends on how it is set up,” she commented. “In the past, we have had supervisors with them. It depends on which company we are working with and how the program is structured.”
The geographical radius for employment opportunities has not been set yet either, Wright said. “We are just kind of assessing things at the moment and there have been no decisions made on the amount of travel.”
Employers in the program will be eligible for federal and state tax credits, she said.
Along with the new workforce program, the Mt. Pleasant Correctional Facility is undergoing several other changes. It is in the midst of being reclassified from a medium to a minimum-security facility. Formerly, the prison housed the state’s sex offenders but now most of the offenders are incarcerated due to drug, alcohol and property crimes. The sex offenders have been moved to Newton.
The local correctional facility has a capacity of 774 offenders but now houses 877. Wright said all of the state’s prisons are overcrowded. The maximum capacity of all of Iowa’s prisons is 7,286 inmates and the current prison population is 8,279.
Wright said she thought the seminar was a success. “We had some very positive feedback, and I thought it went really well.”
A follow-up to yesterday’s seminar is tentatively planned for March or April of 2017, Wright said, during which time employers will be able to talk to offenders ready to be released “so they have a job lined up” after leaving prison.