By: Laura Finaldi
Worcester Business Journal
As workforce development continues to be a pressing issue for Central Massachusetts employers, greater efforts are being made to tap into a portion of the population numbering more than 10,000 to help fill that need – the incarcerated.
Mount Wachusett Community College in July announced it was one of 67 colleges nationwide selected by the U.S. Department of Education pilot program to provide education and job training for inmates.
The pilot is part of a push from the Obama Administration to spearhead criminal justice reform by preparing ex-offenders to reenter the community with skills and resources they need to obtain long-term employment.
As Massachusetts focuses on filling the workforce skills gap, workforce development advocates said tapping into the state’s incarcerated population could help fill those needs, while at the same time hopefully reducing recidivism and creating productive members of society.
“The single biggest issue we hear from members is workforce pipeline capacity, from employers from all different sectors and all different sizes. Whatever we can do to get as many qualified and motivated employees in the field is going to benefit employers,” said Timothy Murray, president and CEO of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce.
January data from the Massachusetts Department of Correction show its population in Massachusetts is dropping. As of Jan 1., there were 10,014 inmates in Massachusetts jails, compared to 11,723 in 2012 and 10,813 in 2015.
Of the 9,355 total males under the state’s jurisdiction, 96 percent were serving a sentence longer than three years while 59 percent of the 659 females under the state’s jurisdiction were sentenced for longer than three years.
Daniel Asquino, MWCC president, has been a strong advocate for using the this population to fill workforce needs.
“Education is a page turner for a number of individuals. It really provides entry into a good job. It’s the right thing to do, a from humanitarian point of view,” Asquino said.
The federal grant isn’t MWCC’s first foray into training the incarcerated for jobs. In January, the college began offering a workforce training program with the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office for inmates at the Worcester County Jail & House of Correction. The program offers industry readiness training to interested inmates in four different modules with 15 students each: blueprint reading, measurement tools, computer skills and lean quality, said Lisa Gobi, director of education at the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office.
The classes are part of Mount Wachusett’s manufacturing certificate, offered at the school’s Devens campus, Gobi said. Inmates could go finish their certificate on campus after their release.
“A lot of these students don’t know where to begin. The younger population, they don’t have many skills, or maybe they’ve never worked,” she said. “This just kind of gives them an edge up on and a little bit of empowerment, because they have something they can walk out of here with. Their time in here isn’t wasted. They’re working towards something that can be useful.”
Productive members of society
According to a January policy brief from MassINC, a bipartisan think tank geared towards supporting the state’s middle class, about two-thirds of defendants Massachusetts sends to state and county prisons are repeat offenders.
Former offenders are less likely to be jailed again if they are able to secure a good job upon their release, but those who enter low-wage, non-steady employment as just as likely to commit crimes again as ex-offenders without a job, according to MassINC.
The value of transitional employment and training, which are offered by many re-entry programs, also seems to be limited, the brief found, because it’s difficult to connect ex-offenders with steady, unsubsidized jobs.
As of Jan. 1, the average institutional length of stay for the Massachusetts DOC jurisdiction population was nearly two and a half years, according to the department. The majority of 2015 criminally sentenced releases (37 percent) were sent back into the community with no supervision, followed closely by probation (35 percent), parole (18 percent) and parole and probation (11 percent).
Worcester County Sheriff Lewis Evangelidis said he hears this loud and clear. The first-term sheriff said he’s happy with how inmates have responded to and benefitted from the MWCC job training program so far, but also said he knows there’s a lot of work to be done, especially when it comes to connecting inmates with sustainable employment.
“One of my goals is to assemble a business development council that would work with sheriff’s department on placement. I’m very interested in assembling a group of business leaders that would help me integrate people into the workforce,” he said.
This could benefit qualified inmates who have demonstrated engagement with their training and interest in turning their lives around, Evangelidis said.
“I always like to reiterate: We don’t coddle inmates. We don’t have the resources, time or patience to do that, but we do give people an honest opportunity to turn their life around,” he said. “We’re here to help you, but you need to help yourself. We’ll meet you halfway … if you don’t meet us halfway, and don’t put the work in, you’re not going to stay [in the class].”
Through the U.S. Department of Education, MWCC will partner with the Massachusetts Department of Corrections to provide academic programs for about 72 inmates at three different prisons: the North Central Correctional Institute in Gardner, the Massachusetts Correctional Institute in Shirley and the Federal Medical Center in Devens. The program is geared towards inmates on track for release over the next five years.
Specific details and training curricula for the Mount Wachusett’s portion of the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program hadn’t been decided on as of press time, Asquino said, but the program will likely be similar to the one the college runs with the sheriff’s office.
It will start early next year, he said.
“Most people in prison are going to be released in our neighborhoods and in our communities,” Asquino said. “Wouldn’t we rather have them gainfully employed and paying taxes?”
The three-year recidivism rate for Massachusetts prisoners released in 2012, including technical violations of parole or probation, was 32 percent, according to the Massachusetts DOC.
There has been a lot of talk about the need to fill the so-called workforce skills gap in Massachusetts. An October 2015 study by Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy projects a shortage of 1.2 million job openings between 2012 and 2022.
Murray, who in addition to his chamber position is a workforce development advocate and co-chair of the the Alliance for Vocational Technical Education, said tapping into the ex-offender population isn’t just a good idea – it’s critical.
“And that’s not just my opinion,” he said. “I’ve met countless police chiefs and people in law enforcement, who have said ‘If we’re going to expect people once they’re released not to go back to the life they were part of … you’ve got to have work opportunities available.'”
The Alliance for Vocational Technical Education is in its first year, so there are no specific plans regarding the incarcerated workforce population, Murray said. A goal of the alliance is to make voke/tech schools an 18-hour-a-day operation, meaning the technology at those schools could be accessible for more people – including the incarcerated.
“There’s a waiting list right now for kids to get into voke/tech schools. If we can open these schools for non-traditional hours … [kids] could come in at 3 p.m. and take a class,” he said. “Maybe the sheriff’s department could come in on Saturdays.”