INDIANAPOLIS — As Indiana's unemployment rate nears record low levels, the state is helping businesses desperate for workers by providing skills training to an unlikely group of Hoosiers that soon will be available to fill high-demand jobs — prisoners.
Across the state, more than 800 convicted felons still serving time are enrolled in academic and vocational programs that have the dual purpose of preparing inmates to establish themselves in their communities on release, and ensuring businesses can find qualified employees for vacant positions.
Manufacturing and logistics skills training are the most popular programs behind bars, according to the Indiana Department of Correction.
That's largely due to the Hoosier State's having the highest share of manufacturing jobs in the nation, and numerous Indiana manufacturing operations regularly announcing their urgent need for additional employees to maintain or expand their businesses.
But through IDOC partnerships with Oakland City University, Vincennes University and Ivy Tech Community College, Indiana prisoners also are earning industry-recognized credentials in welding, computer coding, carpentry, culinary arts, cosmetology, building trades, horticulture, automotive technology and even coal mining.
Sherm Johnson, IDOC executive director for offender employment development, said he's found that growing companies "are willing to hire those that have the required skills — including released offenders — because it makes good business sense."
Indeed, more than 1,400 released prisoners have been placed in jobs over the past year through the Hoosier Initiative for Re-Entry, or HIRE, program operated by the Department of Workforce Development.
According to DWD: "Employed ex-offenders are some of the most dedicated and productive employees. They are overwhelmingly dependable and punctual, and the turnover rate is atypically low because they are loyal to those who have given them a second chance."
Another opportunity is exactly what Gov. Eric Holcomb wanted to promote when he declared in his January State of the State address that he's committed to helping prepare the state's 27,000 inmates for a new life through job skills training.
"This is about second chances, and this is about doing right after you've done something wrong," Holcomb said.
In his speech to the General Assembly, the Republican set what he considered at the time to be the "somewhat lofty" goal of helping 1,000 prisoners over two years "get connected and certified with the skills to be employed when they got out."
He said with more than 800 already enrolled in the first year, that tells him "people aspire to do right, if they are connected with a skill set to put them in jobs."
"What we are seeing, whether it's dealing with machines, or welding or coding — it's working," Holcomb said.
"The ladies that are coming out certified to be welders, they're getting hired at like 100 percent. ... That's not just inspirational, but it also is infectious."
The governor could add "innovative" to that list.
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For example, Indiana is just the second state in the country to train inmates in computer coding through the Last Mile program that's been used since 2014 to teach technology skills to inmates at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
The Last Mile reports that 100 percent of its California participants are employed after leaving prison, and zero have committed another crime that sent them back to prison.
Beverly Parenti, The Last Mile co-founder, said providing offenders the skills that will make it possible for them to find good jobs when they re-enter society saves tax dollars in the long run by creating productive workers and reducing recidivism.
Holcomb said inmates in every training program regularly tell him that acquiring skills in prison gives them the opportunity to succeed outside the walls, and inspires them to set aside any notion of re-offending and to instead have higher expectations for both their lives and their children.
"So this is having a generational impact," Holcomb said. "Let's do more!"
Even Republican Attorney General Curtis Hill, who largely has opposed the Republican Legislature's criminal sentencing reforms, recently made use of skilled IDOC inmates to restore the historic woodwork in his Statehouse office.
About a dozen prisoners trained in practical woodcrafting created new oak doors at the Pendleton Correctional Facility near Indianapolis that they later delivered and installed in the attorney general's office.
Another prisoner from the Edinburgh Correctional Facility worked under supervision at the Statehouse to remove old stain, sand and re-stain the ornate woodwork decorating the workspace of the man and the staff responsible for, among other things, fending off legal appeals filed by convicted criminals.
That inmate, who the attorney general's office identified only as Brian, reportedly said that he felt better about himself by getting to do something positive for the community.
"It gives you more experience on more job skills," he said. "This is something I had never done before. So you never know, when you’re back out in society, you might be able to use it."
Altogether, Hill spent approximately $335,000 from his office's Consumer Settlement Fund to bring the attorney general's workspace up to the same standards as other elected officials based in the 130-year-old Statehouse.
He said the cost of the badly needed repairs and rehabilitation would have been significantly higher absent the contribution of skilled prison laborers.
"I truly appreciate the vision of IDOC Commissioner Rob Carter," Hill said. "He cares deeply about implementing ways for inmates to improve themselves and forge brighter futures despite past mistakes.
"All of society benefits when we reduce recidivism by enabling inmates to leave prison more prepared to pursue productive paths.