- Inmates are learning job skills leading to success in life outside of prison while lowering recidivism in Mississippi’s corrections system.
This week, the Mississippi Senate Corrections Committee heard how work release and career training programs in the state of Mississippi are gaining ground, providing inmates with a way to ensure they can make a living when they are released while also setting them on a path to not return to prison.
Bradley Lum, Deputy Commissioner for Work Development for the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC), described how MDOC Works, formerly Mississippi Prison Industries, is providing paths for MDOC inmates to learn skills and prepare for a life beyond the bars.
Lum told Senators that not only has the work program rebranded, removing the word “prison” to reduce the stigma employers may perceive related to former inmates, but there has also been a change in operation. Instead of focusing on profits from the manufacturing services it provides, the focus has shifted to reducing recidivism.
“No matter how you feel about Prison Industries, we are at a critical moment in how we view and treat our felon population in the state,” Lum told the Senate Committee during a meeting Wednesday. “Are they redeemable, can they correct past behavior and be good citizens, and what are we willing to do to ensure they are set up for success?”
Lum said the inmates who are willing to work can be set up for success after they are released. He added that there are two things known to be true – the cost to incarcerate people is unsustainable and there is generational collateral damage to cycles of incarceration. Lum said MDOC Works helps alleviate both concerns.
An additional benefit is that it trains individuals to work in industries where there is a lack of willing workforce today, helping to address the low labor force participation rate Mississippi and the nation is currently experiencing.
Some of skills being learned and the sectors being served by MDOC Works include the production of mattresses for colleges and universities and hangars for retailers across the nation as well as the construction of street signs, trash cans and metal benches that can be sign in cities and towns across the state.
“Just about everyone in this room has a street sign or garbage can or apartment in your town or municipality that was made by one of our shops,” Lum described.
Currently, about 500 inmates at six of the state’s correctional facilities are receiving on-the-job training. The total MDOC inmate population is roughly 19,000.
Within the soft skills and occupational training program, participants can learn any of 24 industry certified kills.
A savings account was also established for those in the MDOC Works program, where participants who are about 36 months out from release are assigned an account. The program matches dollar for dollar based on what the participant makes in earned incentive pay. Upon their release, the participant receives the money. Lum said last year a total of $15,000 was allotted to 33 participants.
“We are probably issuing anywhere between $400 and $800 to those people who are being released from incarceration under this plan,” Lum said.
Within the work release program, of the 65 total participants since its inception, only two were convicted of another crime within three years.
The work release program, of which the average time to complete the program was about seven months, offers participants the option to learn a trade in several areas, including public works, which is an in-demand profession.
“As we’re a pilot in this I think it’s important to note that, one, cities and towns across the state of Mississippi need public works employees. I think that’s a really good job and it’s a good job for the individuals in our work release program and it’s a job that, in every single case, that job is ready for them when they get out in a release because it’s hard to find those guys. It’s hard to find that labor,” Lum said.
The total earnings of those in the work release program was $809,171, of which $137,819 was paid back in taxes, about $134,000 was paid in fines and fees, and the program provided a total savings to the state of $427,354.
Work release program participants who are employed by an outside employer can make as much as $14 an hour, yet those who are tasked with working at an MDOC site have a lower wage. However, Lum said the participants gain something much more valuable than money; they learn work ethic and other skills that help them keep a job.
There are limitations to who can participate. Lum said participants cannot have an escape conviction in the past five years, cannot be more than two years out from release, and cannot be a sex offender, to name a few restrictions on participation.
State Senator Juan Barnett (D), the Senate Corrections Committee Chairman, inquired about the racial make-up of the program.
Lum told Barnett that the work release program was previously capped at 25 participants, of which 12 were black and 11 were white. Since the program’s inception, 35 participants were white and 29 were black.
State Senator Kabir Karriem (D) expressed concern for those who are unable to join the MDOC Works program, which could mean they will not be able to find sustainable employment upon release. Senator Barnett asked if the current model would be successful if expanded across all of MDOC.
“I think it can be successful if done properly, and I like the fact that we have created units of essentially looking at this with 25 participants in this particular unit to give us good metrics to be able to judge and replicate it,” Lum said.
He went on to say that there are several areas across the state where employers are willing to hire those currently incarcerated but working in a work release program. With the right parameters in place, Lum believes without question that expanding the program could be successful for the state and the individuals and families involved.
“I would say when you look at taxes paid, and total fines and fees, I have a hard time understanding how anybody could be against $270,000 being paid back to the state in some form by those who are currently incarcerated,” Lum said.
Senate Committee members also heard a success story from a former MDOC inmate who now works for the agency’s “Thinking for Change” program. Paige Miller said her path to incarceration started when she fell into depression leading to her abuse of prescription medication and later stealing prescription pads from her husband, who is a doctor, to procure those drugs. She eventually ended up with a methamphetamine addiction.
Miller said her life was great before that spiral. She was married to a doctor and had a college degree, but her drug addiction resulted in her arrest in her fifties.
“I didn’t even turn myself in like a normal person. U.S. Marshals had to come get me,” Miller described. “I was a train wreck of a human being when I landed in the Mississippi Department of Corrections.”
Today, Miller travels four days a week, going from prison to prison to inspire other inmates as part of the “Thinking for Change” program.
“If you get your mind right, your life will change,” Miller said.
Lum said Miller is employed by MDOC’s reentry team, which not only prepares outgoing inmates for their first job back into society, but more importantly gives them the skills needed to ensure they can land subsequent jobs should they encounter more speed bumps in life.
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