Oakhill Job Center could be replicated

A pilot job center program established at Oakhill Correctional Institution to help inmates find work upon their release could soon be expanded to other correctional facilities in Wisconsin.

With employers struggling to find workers and an ex-inmate unemployment rate of 27 percent, a new job center at Oakhill Correctional Institution, a minimum-security prison in the Dane County community of Oregon, could be a sign of workforce things to come.

The job center, a Department of Workforce Development (DWD) program that recently opened to help inmates prepare for job interviews upon their release, is well aligned with Gov. Tony Evers’ objective to significantly reduce Wisconsin’s prison population. Oakhill is the first state prison to have an in-house job center, and it will not be the last. It was chosen as a pilot site because it has a manageable population, and the state already has plans to place job centers at other correctional facilities.

As Oakhill inmates approach their release date, they can work with staff to create resumes, learn interviewing skills, and have computer access to the Job Center of Wisconsin website. Through the first week of January, more than 30 inmates had created accounts with the Job Center of Wisconsin. “We wanted to start off with a lower number of inmates accessing the space so that we knew what the workflow would look like and what the requirements on staff would look like,” explains Ray Woodruff, employment program manager for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. He notes that Oakhill is working with DWD on reports to track inmates’ job-hunting success post release.

“We certainly have anecdotal information about inmates who have received job offers prior to release, and those who have received an interview offer prior to release and then gone out into the community with jobs and job offers, but there is nothing concrete where we can show a percentage or exact job titles at this point,” Woodruff states. “We’re working through that right now with DWD on the best way to measure that.”

Social responsibility

As Woodruff explains, social workers are a key component in helping inmates make themselves marketable to future employers. Each inmate is assigned a social worker when they are first incarcerated, and that social worker is with them throughout their incarceration, essentially case-planning what inmates need be successful post-release. If, for example, an inmate is going through a vocational program at Oakhill, “the social worker is going to be case-planning with him on techniques and strategies to market himself post-release,” Woodruff says.

There are also program offerings in the form of two vocational programs at Oakhill — horticulture fundamentals and building services — and both can lead to credits and a certificate from Madison College, according to Kevin Grahn, education director at Oakhill. Some Oakhill inmates participate in a second chance Pell Grant program in which they work toward an associate of science or arts degree through Milwaukee Area Technical College, and still others take part in a new pilot called the Trans program, which is sponsored by the Department of Transportation. In this program, an instructor from Forward Service Corp. provides 120 hours of training to prepare inmates for jobs in road construction.

The Department of Corrections also is working directly with employers to ensure they are either aware of the job center program or to give them a chance to directly recruit soon-to-be released inmates — and recruit them right at Oakhill. “Yes, we’re working into that a little bit more with the creation of this job center,” Woodruff says. “Oakhill does have work-release employers that it works with, so there are some inmates who are working outside the fence at employers in the community. It’s a relatively small number, but the program does exist, and with this job center we are working with DWD and the local job service to target employers to come in and do recruiting sessions and interviewing sessions with our population.”

Bruce Palzkill, an assistant administrator in the DWD’s division of employment and training, notes the Oakhill Job Center operates with staff from DWD and the Workforce Development Board of South-Central Wisconsin and is open 20 hours per week. DWD staff provide access to a host of programs and services, including career readiness programs, job search assistance, resume development, services for veterans, registered apprenticeships, and assistance for individuals with disabilities.

“In addition to workforce programs and services, DWD and workforce board staff are working with local employers to create stronger linkage between inmates and employers,” Palzkill states. “Employers will be allowed onsite to host interviews or hiring events, potentially hiring soon-to-be released inmates before their release date.”

Grahn notes that Oakhill Correctional Institution plans a jobs fair in April, and it will “bring a lot of different employers in here from different entities, and it will be a good time to showcase the job center and the resources we have up there and what we can do,” he adds. A specific date for the jobs fair has yet to be announced.

As for when the job center concept will be expanded to other Wisconsin correctional institutions, possibly as part of subsequent state budgets, Woodruff says the sooner, the better. “I can tell you right now that we are already excited about the success,” he states. “Even for inmates to get on the computer and the Job Center of Wisconsin website, create accounts, develop resumes, and search for jobs, that in and of itself is exciting, and it’s something that our inmates have not traditionally been able to do, and so we wanted to expand that access right now.

“We know that we want to move forward with that, even absent of additional funding in the budget,” Woodruff continues. “Department of Corrections has some additional funding this year yet to expand that to other facilities, so we do anticipate by June 2019 being able to expand to at least one additional facility and probably others, as well.”

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In his former profession as a school counselor, Grahn understood the connection between education and employability, and that’s why he’s a big proponent of the Oakhill Job Center. “In the past few months, there’s been a lot of positive comments,” he says. “I get a lot of the requests from them [inmates] if they want to come and access the space, so I’m pretty busy. I’m out there every day reacting with the DWD staff in the job center, and seeing the emails back and forth to employers, and the excitement and the hope that it’s generating for our population here, it’s rewarding for me.

“It’s been going well. There were a few bumps right away, but with anything new like a pilot program, that’s to be expected,” Grahn adds.

Palzkill notes the Oakhill Job Center is just one of the ways the two agencies are partnering to provide workforce resources to soon-to-be released inmates as they transition back into the labor pool. Currently, Racine Correctional Institution hosts a mobile CNC (computer numerical control) lab for inmates, which provides CNC training and connects trainees with local businesses upon release. Two more mobile labs are under construction: a welding sector training center and an industrial maintenance training lab. DWD and DOC are also working on an industrial maintenance training program at Red Granite Correctional Institution.

Woodruff credited the Department of Workforce Development, noting that from the beginning, his department had a willing partner. “There are a lot of things to figure out along the way, but from our perspective, it was all worth it,” he says. “We’ve overcome the lack of inmate access to technology resources, and how would we allow them to access a space? And how’s the staffing pattern going to work? Our two agencies, as well as the local workforce development board, we’re all-in when thinking about how this is going to make the lives of our population better.

“We knew that it would, so we proceeded and kept moving forward,” Woodruff continues. “To this point, even though it’s only been a few months, we’re excited about the potential here and excited to expand in the future.”

After prison promise

Palzkill notes that with Wisconsin’s unemployment rate at or below three percent for 11 consecutive months, and the number of open jobs exceeding the number of unemployed workers, employers are seeking skilled employees to fill vacant positions. Since more than 90 percent of Wisconsin’s inmate population will eventually be released, he says the partnership will tap into that workforce by preparing inmates for in-demand careers and for successful reintegration into the community.

Clare Hendricks, deputy communications director of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, says the department and its executive leaders have been working with the new Evers administration on practices and policies that would both reduce recidivism and make communities safe for everyone. “We haven’t maybe spoken specifically about this, but I know that re-entering society and giving opportunities to our inmate population are goals that we share,” Hendricks notes, “and that really have proven to reduce recidivism, reduce crime rates, and to put our inmate population in a great place to succeed once they return to the community.”

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