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Michigan doubles capacity to prep inmates for in-demand jobs

Inside what was once a prison license plate factory, 42-year-old inmate Richard Willett spends his days in a converted robotics lab, learning how to operate computerized machinery in hopes of working a good-paying job when he's freed. It's better than his past two prison stints, when he mostly just waited for parole only to end up back behind bars. "I'm willing to do whatever it takes to get out there and do what I got to do to succeed," said Willett, who delivered pizzas after his last release. A hernia operation and painkiller prescription began a "downward spiral" into old bad habits in Taylor, he said, ending with a sentence for heroin possession. Now Willett is among the first prisoners living and studying at a newly opened "vocational village" at the minimum-security Parnall Correctional Facility near Jackson. It's the second school to be launched in as many years by the Michigan Department of Corrections, more than doubling capacity from about 200 inmates to roughly 550. Soon-to-be released prisoners who qualify are removed from the general population and assigned to the exclusive village for housing and job training that simulates a regular work day. It offers some of the same options provided at the other program — in Ionia — but also masonry, robotics, truck driving and fork lift operation. The agency's leader next hopes to start a third village at the state's only women's prison in Ypsilanti. Of the 51 prisoners to finish at the Ionia village so far, 35 — or 69 percent — are employed, including 16 who secured their job before being paroled. "We are training these guys in jobs that are in demand, that are going unfilled in this state, and jobs that exist in the communities they're going back to," said Corrections Director Heidi Washington, who helped market the newest village to employers, workforce developers and others this past week. Among those in attendance at the open house were a state lawmaker and officials from Gov. Rick Snyder's and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan's offices. The anti-recidivism initiative is part of a "culture change" within the department in which the emphasis is on offenders' success, Washington said. Michigan releases 10,000 prisoners each year, but repeat offenders make up nearly 40 percent of those entering the system. Inmates who receive educational training are 43 percent less likely to reoffend than those who don't, according to a 2013 Rand Corp. study. Officials believe the opportunities for inmate employment are greater now because of Michigan's shortages in skilled trades. One business willing to employ ex-convicts is Livonia-based Alta Equipment Co., which sells, rents and services heavy equipment in the manufacturing and construction industries. Half of its 800 employees are mechanics. Some 100 will reach retirement age in the next five years. The company covers tuition, books and fees for trainees to complete a technician program at Macomb Community College, after which they are offered a full-time job. Yet it can't find enough young students to participate. Now Alta has six ex-inmates on its payroll and is partnering with the state and nonprofits to screen and interview more. Company officials probe each prisoner's crimes and the circumstances, including their age at the time and how long ago the crimes occurred. "We were kind of in a situation where it was, 'Where are we going to find qualified people?'" said human resources vice president Rebecca Dioso. "People are people. People make mistakes. We had an opportunity to find successful people and give them a job." Parnall Warden Melinda Braman said while the state has long offered vocational education, inmates now receive guidance on what jobs are actually available in their home counties. They get help securing vital documents needed for employment before their release. Those in the vocational villages live together and study and work all day to earn recognized trade certificates. Braman, a 20-year veteran of the department, said she never could have imagined having truck driving or masonry programs inside prison walls. "The reality is these guys are going back out," she said. "They're going to be our neighbors. They're going to be our families' neighbors. Why not give them the tools to be successful and be gainfully employed citizens out there making money, taking care of their own families, teaching them the right way so they don't come back here? That's what's exciting to me." The Parnall village will have roughly 350 inmates when it's fully operational. Among the 40 or so prisoners already there is 43-year-old Ron Paschal, a former drug addict and dealer who's serving time for operating and maintaining a meth lab in the Paw Paw area. He's a welder by trade and is learning about and teaching carpentry skills in part to become more marketable when he's let go. He said he hopes the "times are changing" and fewer businesses are "close-minded" to hiring ex-convicts. "I want to be able to help society instead of tear it apart like my prior self," Paschal said.