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Gov. Rick Snyder greets Jackson prisoners, tours new Vocational Village

When Gov. Rick Snyder's second term expires in 2018, he may have a lead on a new calling. While touring the newly opened Michigan Department of Corrections Vocational Village at Jackson's Parnall Correctional Facility, Snyder tried his hand at driving a semi-trailer simulator - with a bit of guidance from a teacher in the program. Despite a few nerves, he backed the big rig into a small parking space without hitting the fire truck in the adjacent space. The truck simulator is one of 10 trades available for prisoners to pick up in the new program - along with carpentry, masonry, robotics and automotive technology, among others. "I was amazed at how fast they're learning some of these things," Snyder said. "I looked at some of the programming they were doing - for example with those robots. Many of these people had only been doing it for a month or two." The Vocational Village is only the second in Michigan - with the first beginning in Ionia's Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility. Snyder said he wants to continue to grow the program and start a new one at a women's prison. Kyle Counts, a 26-year-old inmate who serves as a tutor in the program, showed Snyder the new technology used at the facility. Counts is prepared to be a machinist once he leaves, and then go to school for mechanical engineering. Ultimately, he plans to end up working for one of the Big Three automakers. "It's something to look forward to," Counts said. "It actually brings hope. For the first four-and-a-half years of my time, I didn't have anything to look forward to. I was a kid who was scared to go home, because I knew that everyone had advanced, but I was stuck." To be in the program, prisoners must apply, write an essay, be on good behavior and be two years away from leaving prison. "We can't ever change the choices that we made, but we can go better ourselves," Counts said. "Because of that, we can go home and be productive members of society." Upon release, a percentage of prisoners end up back in the system because they can't get a job and fall back into old habits, prison officials have said. With this program, prisoners can get certified now and get hooked up with a job soon after, they said. Counts says his time in this program - which he began in January 2016 in Ionia - will help him stay out of prison for good. "I think we'll see a dramatic difference in terms of how many of these folks come back," Snyder said. "I hope they don't come back at all. My goal is to see 100 percent placement for anyone going through this program." Construction on the Jackson Vocational Village finished in August. Snyder said these jobs are in such demand that it's a challenge finding teachers - however there are retired people who specialized in the various fields helping, with the mindset of giving back. "We're going to continue to look for ways to expand the program, because it is an absolute win for everyone," Snyder said. "This is a tremendously exciting program. The biggest question I have is, why didn't we think of this 20 or 30 years ago?"