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‘Every great success story starts with a vision’

A year ago, a former Michigan State Industries factory on the grounds of Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson sat shuttered and mostly empty. But in a matter of months the closed-off industrial space was transformed into a cutting-edge classroom designed to help prisoners land careers in high-demand fields. It is home to the department’s newest Vocational Village. “Every great success story starts with a vision,” Parnall Correctional Facility Warden Melinda Braman said. “We had several visions that made today a reality.” In a space where prisoners once made license plates, shoes and other goods, they now learn skilled trades including robotics, computer numerical control machining, carpentry, automotive technology, commercial driving, forklift operation and concrete and masonry work. They live together in one housing unit that acts as a supportive learning community where prisoners can study and attend programs together, and work toward a common goal. Prisoners have full days of training and classroom instruction intended to mimic a typical work day outside prison walls. When operating at full capacity, the new Vocational Village at Parnall Correctional Facility will have the ability to accommodate up to 240 skilled trades students and 32 trade tutors. It will also include up to 85 students completing higher education classes with the help of federal grants through the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program. “This is a great day for us,” Michigan Department of Corrections Director Heidi Washington told Michigan business leaders, government officials, community partners and prisoners during a grand opening tour of the new Vocational Village on Aug. 30. “The Vocational Village is something we created because of a need to provide more education and more training to offenders in our care.” The department opened its first Vocational Village at Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in 2016, and nearly 70 percent of prisoners who have paroled from that program so far are employed. The Handlon Correctional Facility Vocational Village trains prisoners in trades that include welding, computer numerical control machining, automotive technology, carpentry, plumping and electrical work. Prisoners at both Vocational Villages must meet measurable goals and they receive state- and nationally-recognized certifications in their trade for successful participation in the program. The Vocational Village gives prisoners an opportunity to invest in their future, and it allows the department to invest in public safety by giving them a skill that will help reduce their risk of reoffense. “Our ultimate goal is to provide long-term public safety,” Washington said. “The only way we can do that is to create change and to create an environment that helps these gentlemen be successful when they return home.” Prisoners from across the state can apply to participate in the program and must be within two years of release, have a GED, and stay misconduct free to be accepted. They also must show they are committed to completing the training. “They have to demonstrate they want to be involved and they have an aptitude and an interest in the trade,” Washington said. “The prisoners in this program are driven, smart and will come out with expertise in their trade.” That expertise is something prisoner Lee Robar, Jr. is looking forward to having. Robar, who is involved in the Vocational Village’s carpentry program, said he hopes the training and certifications will propel him to a career that will help him support his family and show his sons the value of hard work. “I’m motivated and I have a desire in my heart to use this to be a better person,” Robar said. “A lot of guys don’t get this kind of opportunity. I’m blessed to have this chance.” See more on this story at https://medium.com/@MichiganDOC Or visit www.michigan.gov/vocvillage