By Crystal Burns
Thanks to a $146,000 grant from the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, select state inmates serving time at the Gibson County jail have an opportunity to leave incarceration with industrial credentials and the skills needed to secure good-paying jobs.
The Northwest Tennessee Workforce Board and Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT) in Jackson unrolled Re-entry Advanced Manufacturing Program (RAMP) in the jail on June 1. Ten inmates are currently working through the Certified Production Technician (CPT) program, which includes four national certifications in Safety, Quality, Manufacturing Processes and Maintenance Awareness. The instructor, Robert Beeler, is on site Monday-Friday to provide up to seven hours of coursework each day.
“I think it’s really going to be a successful program,” Beeler said. “These guys want this. They don’t want to come back [to jail]. We’re giving them the tools to not come back to this.”
“The goal is to cut down on recidivism,” said Gibson Co. Sheriff Paul Thomas. “These repeat offenders are the ones we’ve got to get to.”
A recent Department of Corrections study showed that recidivism is higher among prisoners released from jails than prisons, and finding work after serving jail time can be especially difficult in rural areas. Thomas explained the cycle, saying the majority of men and women returning to the Gibson Co. jail do so because they can’t keep up with the fines and court costs associated with old offenses and are jailed again for failure to make those payments. He would ultimately like to see the jail declared as an official workhouse, which would allow qualified inmates to leave jail to work and earn money, which jail administrators would use to pay the inmates’ fines. Thomas said any excess money would be put in an account to give the inmate upon release.
Margaret Prater, executive director of the Northwest Tennessee Workforce Board, said the Dyer Co. jail is an official workhouse and some inmates are released with thousands of dollars they have earned while working manufacturing and other industrial jobs.
“The benefits of that are huge,” Thomas said.
Prater said the CPT program started in local high schools three years ago, and area employers have been pleased with the results. In looking at new target populations to serve, the workforce board decided to expand its American Job Center resources in the Dyer Co. jail to include hands-on training as well as resume writing and job interview skills. When Prater proposed a similar program to Thomas, she said the sheriff jumped on it.
“Our intent is to continue it as long as it’s successful,” Prater said.
Ideal candidates must have a desire to train and work in manufacturing, have a functional reading level of sixth grade or above, be within six months of release date and have a record that does not include violent or sex crimes. Thomas said inmates must also have a clean disciplinary record since being incarcerated. He said he met with the first group of 10 to let the men know they only get one chance in the program.
Thomas also decided to put the men together in one pod so that they can encourage each other. Jailors leave the computers in the group’s pod for about two hours after each class so that they can continue to study, and Thomas said staff members see the men working together and helping each other. Computers are locked up in a cell overnight and on weekends.
The pilot program will serve 50 inmates. After they receive their certifications, the American Job Center will offer additional services related to getting and keeping a job, Prater said.
“Our goal is that once they’re released, they go to work,” she said. “We have every indication from employers that they’re eager to see this work. We’re excited about it.”
On July 10, the Gibson Co. jail will host all three local chamber of commerce directors and leaders to let them see the class in action and explain the benefits that are available to businesses that employ ex-convicts. For more information on the program, contact Prater at 731-286-3585 or firstname.lastname@example.org or the sheriff at 731-855-1121.