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'Guys without hope find their way back,' prisoner in new Vocational Village says

Just beyond the walls of Jackson's Parnall Correctional Facility sits a classroom of trade school students like no other. They eat, bunk, work and learn together in the hopes that the day they finish their schooling and their prison sentence they'll have a job that will help keep them from falling back into the same habits that landed them there in the first place. Highlighting the success of the Vocational Village created a year ago at the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, the Michigan Department of Corrections has created a second village that's now open at Parnall. "I've put in a lot of hard work to change my life for the better, to learn a wanted skill and be able to support my son when I get out," Lee Robar Jr., an inmate in the village's carpentry program, said. "I did a lot of 'under the table' work similar to this in the past and it didn't get me very far. To have the knowledge on how to do the work right and the certifications to back them up will make a world of difference. I know I will be OK when I get out and not come back." The program, available to up to 240 qualifying prisoners, offers certified training in CNC machining, automotive technology, carpentry, masonry, forklift operations and commercial truck driving. "We know it's difficult for someone to find a job once they get out when they have that 'scarlet letter' on their resume noting they are a felon, so we are trying our hardest to connect them with employers before they get released," MDOC Spokesman Chris Gautz said. Twice a month, MDOC sends out a list of parolees with trade skills to employers asking if they are interested in interviewing a candidate, Gautz said To be in the program, prisoners have to apply, write an essay, be on good behavior and be two years away from leaving prison. "We provided safety for society by having prisons, but prisons are a temporary protection," said MDOC Director Heidi Washington. "Most prisoners eventually get released, so we need to change their way of life through education and employment. Gone are they days where a prisoner just gets assigned to whatever jobs are available. They are here training for jobs that exist now." A successful and productive life for an inmate once they leave prison and never return is the ultimate goal of the program, said Deputy Warden Lee McRoberts. "At some point, 95 percent of all our inmates are getting out and being released back into society," he said, addressing those who ask why the state should spend money on vocational training for prisoners. "We all need to find work, so why should they be any different? They are our neighbors when they get out, and a lot of the time these guys are here because they didn't have the necessary skills to find honest employment." The village is in the prison's former manufacturing building where thousands of license plates once were created. Construction began in February and finished on Friday, Aug. 25. Inmates in the program are trained to industry standards and receive official state-recognize certifications for the programs they are in. "I know people don't think highly of us in here, but I can be productive," Robar said. "Most of us just need the encouragement to live a good life and do better. Guys without hope find their way back here." So far, no one who has been released through the vocational village program has returned to prison, Gautz said. "Skilled trades are in huge demand throughout the state," said Rebecca Dioso, ALTA Equipment Company vice president of human resources. "We took a chance on a guy coming out of prison from a seven-year arson sentence to be a mechanic for us and he still works for the company today full-time with benefits." On the upper floor of the training facility is a nationally recognized truck driving simulator that helps inmates understand the key tasks for successfully operating a semitrailer. Once inmates are released, they continue the on-the-road training necessary to earn their commercial driver's license. "Looking at what is going on here is very encouraging and I want to know more," said Bryant Ramsey, owner of Jackson's RTD Manufacturing. "There is a huge need for skilled trades workers right now." Though the village is still in its early phase, MDOC is currently looking into creating another vocational village for female prisoners.