By: Worcester Telegram, January 10, 2021, Matthew Tota, Correspondent
WORCESTER — The same image haunted Jamie Powell throughout his two-year sentence inside the Worcester County Jail and House of Correction.
His four children were staring at him from behind a glass barrier at the jail. They seemed so close. They might as well have been miles away. It hurt more to see them, knowing he couldn’t touch them.
Powell, 29, was imprisoned on drug and gun charges. He has been in and out of prison since 18, always falling back with the same people and same routines that end up ensnaring him. This time, though, he worried he would never see his kids again. And he wanted to change, not just for himself, but for them.
“I grew up without the father, and I didn’t want my kids to come out the way I did,” he said.
Powell, of Worcester, would spend six months in a drug rehabilitation program, then last year, enroll in an Occupational Safety and Health Administration certification course offered inside the jail by the Blackstone Valley Education Hub. The OSHA course is part of the BV Ed Hub’s new workforce re-entry program that trains inmates at the House of Correction in advanced manufacturing, then, crucially, helps them find jobs.
Powell’s disciplined work ethic secured him a spot in the re-entry program, which he stuck with even after his release in June. Four months later, he earned his MACWIC Level 2 certification – giving him the skills needed for an entry level position at a manufacturing firm – a member of the first class to complete the BV Ed Hub’s re-entry program.
Now reunited with his family, Powell is earning about $20 an hour at Web Industries in Holliston manufacturing COVID-19 tests. “Now nobody can say I’m a loser, that I’m a felon, and I’m not doing anything with my life,” he said. “People do mess up and make mistakes, but then they can step up.”
In all this year, six men gained MACWIC Level 2 certification through the re-entry program, supported grants from the state’s Commonwealth Corp., with another six preparing to start courses in February.
For these men, just released from the House of Correction, the BV Ed Hub provides an opportunity for them to transform their lives. Of all the socializing and education that takes place in a jail, “there’s no better program than a job,” said Worcester County Sheriff Lewis G. Evangelidis. “Our ultimate goal is for every inmate to get a job.”
In the last decade, a combination of education and understanding has made it a little easier for people mired in the criminal justice system to get jobs, according to Evangelidis, but they still face a tough road to employment.
“Don’t get me wrong, there are people in this world who belong behind bars. But there are a lot of people who have grown up with two strikes against them, and there’s a lot more understanding about giving them a second chance,” Evangelidis said. “But it takes a community to do it; we’re just one piece of the puzzle. There’s housing, employment and medical care and other partners who keep these people on track. We don’t always succeed. We don’t bat 1,000, but we’re doing better, and the world has been more open and understanding of the idea that not everyone who has been incarcerated is a bad or evil person.”
Often lacking transportation, housing and a general support system, they struggle to break into the workforce, Evangelidis said, battling both their own negative feelings toward themselves and those from people who only see their criminal record.
The BV Ed Hub’s re-entry program and others like it are critical to reforming their lives, he said, part of the House of Correction’ effort to partner with educators and employers. Because not only do they find these men work, they empower them, too.
“They tell me they’ve never had more dignity and self-respect,” the sheriff said.
Aside from the manufacturing industry, the House of Correction has worked with restaurant owners – including members of the Worcester Restaurant Group – to train inmates as chefs and get them jobs at restaurants.
“When we create these partnerships, we create a pipeline from the jail to education and training programs to good, high-paying, lifetime employment,” Evangelidis said. “It’s the greatest thing that can happen to our inmates.”
The re-entry program works so well because it solves two problems: bettering the lives of previously incarcerated men and filling the serious gap of skilled labor threatening the state’s manufacturing industry.
“It started with manufacturers calling looking for employees,” said Jeannie Hebert, president and CEO of the Blackstone Valley Chamber of Commerce, which houses the BV Ed Hub. “They were saying, ‘We have the work, but we can’t find the people.’”
The idea to work with the House of Correction emerged after inmates in its work-release program helped with the construction for the BV Ed Hub’s offices and classrooms, Hebert said.
“We had current inmates come out and do painting and some of the work for the buildout,” she said. “I realized the sheriff is very pro-active, especially with helping inmates who are returning citizens. We talked about putting together a program where we train these inmates in advanced manufacturing.”
With grant funding, the first classes were able to start in February 2019 inside the House of Correction. They continued through 2020 as inmates were released, and in March, when COVID-19 shut down the state, the BV Ed Hub managed to get Chromebooks for every member of the re-entry program, so they could continue their training remotely.
The courses run the gamut from basic shop math, to precise measuring, to virtual welding, to programing robots. The men also get assistance in building a resumé and acing a job interview. The training isn’t as in-depth or rigorous as it is at a top vocational technical school, but it does provide the basics for them to step right into a job on a factory floor.
“In four years of trade school, you’re in that shop 30 hours a week, every other week,” said Michael Hurley, the BV Ed Hub’s advanced manufacturing and technology instructor. “We obviously cannot do that, so this is an accelerated course of study. The focus is on machining, then we transfer into CNC machines, learning how to use the computers that run the machines. And we have the top of the line, most modern equipment that’s out there for them to work with.”
Hurley, who taught for more than a decade at Worcester Technical High School before retiring in 2014, has been teaching inmates at the House of Correction and running remote classes for the BV Ed Hub. Inside the jail, he said, he has never seen a more dedicated group of students eager to learn.
“When I’m teaching them in the jail, they cannot absorb enough of the information I give them,” Hurley said. “They go above and beyond what they need to do. I’m even amazed at what they do to help each other.”
The coursework is also influenced by the manufacturers partnering with the House of Correction and BV Ed Hub with the expectation of hiring the men once they complete the program. Manufacturers that have signed on include Riverdale Mills Corp. in Northbridge, WireFab Inc., and PremaTech Advanced Ceramics, both in Worcester.
Riverdale Mills, which specializes in welded wire mesh fabrics for the marine, security, construction and agriculture industries, has already hired six men from the Education Hub’s re-entry program, including members of the second group expected to start training in February.
“Reintegrating the formerly incarcerated into society makes tremendous sense and is good for the economy,” Riverdale CEO Jim Knott said in an email. “Formerly incarcerated people need housing, health care, and most importantly, jobs. The individuals we have met through the BV Ed Hub are eager to learn, work hard and do what it takes to be successful.”
Jamie Powell was among the first of the re-entry program graduates to land a job at Riverdale; he left for a position at Web Industries in Holliston in part because it offered more pay as well as a job for his wife.
His favorite part about the re-entry program was getting to work on some of the BV Ed Hub’s advanced manufacturing machines. “I have ADHD, so doing the hands-on stuff is a lot easier than reading. I adapted and learned so much faster,” he said.
If not for the BV Ed Hub, Powell said he would likely have ended up back in jail. “I always felt stuck when I came home – just another person trapped in the system,” he said.
In February, Powell is hoping to take a welding class at the BV Ed Hub, saying learning the skill will lead to even more opportunities for him. He looks at life differently now: He’s hopeful and expects more for himself than he ever has – like a raise if he works hard enough.
“Most think once they’re in the system, there’s no hope. They can never get a job. But those are all lies,” he said.