Work Release: Changing lives and filling jobs

 

Albion, IN - Unemployment in Noble County dropped to 2.7% in March. The continued low rate of unemployment locally and across the region has motivated employers, educators, and economic development organizations to create initiatives that aim to attract, develop, and retain a workforce. Collaborations have resulted in a variety of vocational training programs, internship programs, and even project-based learning opportunities for students as young as five years old. One such effort is focused not only on filling job needs, but also on changing lives, and it’s having a positive effect on a segment of the population sometimes avoided by employers.

The Chain O’Lakes Correctional Facility (COLCF) in Albion, IN in the heart of Noble County is one of four minimum-level security facilities within the Indiana Department of Corrections (IDOC) that houses men incarcerated for non-violent crimes. COLCF has joined forces with Leaders Staffing and local employers to prepare and put motivated men with convictions to work, filling jobs and helping them succeed in making the transition from incarceration back into the community. Since the work release program was launched at COLCF in 2011, men have been hired by Carlex, Dexter Axle, Busche, and LSC Communications, and more are expected to get on board with the program soon.

Rhonda Thomas-Hardy, administrative assistant to the warden at COLCF, says the work release program has been very successful, and that it works much like any other job placement agency.

“We began small in 2011 and have expanded to a 38-bed work release facility that opened at the end of January,” Thomas-Hardy explained. The COLCF provides dormitory-style housing to its residents.

The work release program kicked off locally with the placement of five men at C & A Tool. Eventually, more employers jumped on board. Carlex, with a plant in Ligonier, has hired more workers through the program than any other local company thus far. Larry Gough, human resources manager, says the program has been great.

“It’s not a bad gig,” Gough said. “The workers we have met have brought in no drama. They get to work, focus on the job, and want to be working,” he explained.

Since giving the work release program a try, Carlex has brought in 22 workers. They employ over 400 people in all. Only four of those hired from work release were unable to take permanent positions because of a long commute from their permanent places of residence. They resided in Muncie, Wabash, Fort Wayne, and Kentucky. That was heartbreaking, Gough said, in one particular case.

“We had a man from Kentucky who so badly wanted to stay on permanently, but when incarceration ended, he couldn’t find a place to live,” Gough explained. Only one of the work release new hires is known to have made a new home in Ligonier. (The city is acutely aware of the lack of housing common throughout the county and recently announced more homes will be constructed soon in a newly annexed area of the city.) Gough expects five more workers currently on work release will become permanent employees later this month.

Thomas-Hardy echoed Gough’s satisfaction with the work release program, noting that Carlex changed their hiring policy. It used to require the company to wait until an offender was released from incarceration to offer a permanent position. Now, the company can choose to offer a permanent job after a worker completes 90 days as a temporary employee, whether they remain incarcerated or not. This makes work release placement policies the same as those for hiring a worker through any traditional staffing agency. This change, according to Thomas-Hardy, has provided great motivation to men in the program because they know their job can become permanent and support their transition back into the community.

“It is all hands on deck here,” said Thomas-Hardy. “We put a lot of work into screening the men. Before they are ever allowed into work release they have to meet eligibility requirements and will undergo extensive one-on-one work with a case manager.”

Some of the training the men receive is provided by programs under the Hoosier Initiative for Re-Entry (HIRE), a collaboration between the Department of Workforce Development, Department of Correction, employers, and their case managers. Other training opportunities may also be provided by Ivy Tech and other educators in the region.

Three of the men Carlex hired through work release say they are grateful for the chance to prove themselves. Jason Jones took a brief break from the production line at Carlex to say that the programs at COLCF, to help men get a second chance, are a good thing.

Jason Jones works a production line at Carlex in Ligonier. Jones landed a permanent job at the facility after participating in the work release program at Chain O’Lakes Correctional Facility in Albion. Jones was incarcerated at the low-level security facility for a non-violent offense.

“Being able to get training on CNC or welding, and participate in the work release program, those are really good things for the guys,” Jones said. He described the COLCF as providing a real life-changing experience, in part because of its setting, surrounded by the beauty of nature and the kinds of work assignments provided.

Jones’ co-workers, Todd Howard and James Lawson agreed. They work for John Huneck, facilities engineer at Carlex, who said the men complete a lot of various projects throughout the plant. The work release program prepared them well to transition to being a productive member of team at Carlex. The men agreed a “Jack of all trades” was an apt description for the varied work they do.

John Huneck (left), a facility engineer at Carlex in Ligonier, is pleased with the diversity of projects his employees Todd Howard (center) and James Lawson complete. Howard and Lawson were offered permanent placement at Carlex after completing a temporary work period while participating in the work release program at Chain O’Lakes Correctional Facility in Albion.
 
Gough said that the pre-screening done within the program at COLCF is critical. It has helped to win over the V.P. of Human Resources at Carlex to support this program, too.
“We have no reservations,” said Gough. “Only two of the 22 we have hired were terminated due to performance-related issues. That’s only 10% that didn’t work out. That’s pretty good.”
In addition to the soft skills that workers are provided to help prepare them for interviews and to learn effective communication skills, COLCF provides transportation to make sure workers meet their obligations to employers. The men eligible to participate in work release have been convicted of non-violent offenses, are eager to get back to work and into their communities, and are typically prepared to do so on their own, once incarceration ends. Only one man on work release at Carlex had to turn down a permanent job offer because he didn’t have a driver’s license after incarceration ended.

Thomas-Hardy encourages more employers, including those in Allen County, to explore work release to attract and retain workers. When asked if he would recommend work-release to other Noble County employers, Gough hesitated, but only briefly.

“Well, we don’t want others to take the employees we may want,” Gough said, tongue-in-cheek. “Seriously, though, it’s been a program that’s been very encouraging to my team. We are happy to play a part in changing their lives.”

Northeast Indiana employers interested in learning more about the COLCF work release program can contact the facility at (260) 636-3114. For more information about Indiana Department of Corrections re-entry and development programs, contact Sherm Johnson, executive director for offender employment development, at shjohnson@idoc.in.gov.

(Photo and report by Lori Gagen, Noble County Economic Development Corporation.)