COTTONWOOD, Idaho — Steven Hanson, 39, straddled Clyde the calf, ready to tag her ear. Clyde is a life-size model, and Hanson stood in a classroom, not a farmyard. Nevertheless, he rubbed her plush neck to soothe her nerves. He was restraining her, he explained, “just enough.”
Kevin Rehder, who teaches dairy science and math at the North Idaho Correctional Institution, practically jumped into the air with delight. “Dr. Grandin again! This is her study! The squeeze!” he said, reminding students in the class of Temple Grandin’s renowned work on calming cattle.
Hanson gave the ear-tagger a practice squeeze in the air, positioned it over the pliable ear and squeezed the handle. Pop! — Clyde had an identifying number.
Hanson has an identifying number of his own: his Idaho Department of Correction inmate ID number. And even after he gets out, he’ll bear a label that usually slams employers’ doors shut: felon.
But Hanson’s hoping it won’t have to be that way — that his ability to tag and label and care for Clyde will help erase the stigma, thanks to the career training he is getting in prison.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of prisoners, at almost every U.S. prison, take federally funded career and technical education courses. And postsecondary education in prison, both vocational and more traditionally academic, will soon become more widespread: This perennially low-funded, essentially hidden part of the education world will be getting more money, thanks to three decisions in Washington: the First Step Act criminal justice reforms, the newest version of the federal Perkins Act for career and technical education and, most notably, the recent expansion of Second Chance Pell college grants for prisoners.
That’s good news, the evidence shows. Inmates who participate in correctional education — from GED certificates to college degrees and trade training and everything in between — are up to 43 percent less likely to return to prison, and such education provides a $5 return for every taxpayer dollar spent, according to the Rand Corp. And that’s just within three years of a prisoner’s release.
“Everything I’ve heard — jobs or employment are the No. 1 reason for recidivism,” said Tim Leigh, the Idaho Department of Correction re-entry manager.
And experts agree that one of the most important things career training in prison can provide is a credential that’s recognized on the outside.
“We have this population in our prisons that have a lot of skills … but no one will [hire] them because they’re felons.”Tim Leigh, Idaho Department of Correction re-entry manager
A credential “plays a really important translation role,” said Ruth Delaney, associate initiative director for the Vera Institute of Justice. “We are a very credential-based society.” People who have worked or learned in prison but don’t have a way to prove it are “just at a really big disadvantage.”
So the more forward-thinking prison systems are ramping upcertificates and apprenticeships, with the imprimatur of local colleges and of trade groups such as the National Center for Construction Education and Research. And they include a state much of the country rarely thinks about: Idaho.
Idaho might seem like an outlier, and its state prison population — 8,775 people as of June 2020 – might look small. That population is 74 percent white, compared with a national average of 35 percent, according to The Sentencing Project. But its per-capita imprisonment rate is actually in the top 10, with roughly the same racial disparities as the rest of the country, according to the Sentencing Project, the Vera Project and the ACLU. And in 2017, 1 of every 24 Black men in Idaho were in prison.
In recent years, according to state reports, prison was just plain warehousing for around 30 percent of Idaho inmates: They were back in custody within three years of release. And like other prison systems, Idaho’s has many people for whom education hasn’t worked: 29 percent to 35 percent come in without a high school diploma or equivalency, Leigh said.
Yet Idaho is making a difference, with classes like Rehder’s. It’s one of more than 30 career-technical options across the state’s nine prison campuses, and most are programs specifically designed to match up to real-world jobs such as welding, specialty construction and machining.
A short drive into the dusty hills outside Boise, the Idaho State Correctional Center’s cinderblock Vocational 4 classroom looks simultaneously spacious and crowded. It houses metal cabinets plastered with warning signs, a roof segment in cutaway, tools in a caged area, worktables, a computer numerical control (CNC) programmable wood-cutting machine and a stack of office chairs in various stages of repair. Four men — attendance is limited due to Covid — wrote, eyeballed levels and adjusted the design of a wood desk plaque featuring an elegant horse. These four have completed carpentry certification and now serve as teaching assistants, student coaches and repairmen.
Carpentry is one of five apprenticeships now offered at ISCC, along with electrical, masonry, janitorial and teacher’s assistant programs. All are registered with the federal government, which gives participants the freedom to move across state lines after release. ISCC started the programs in the last three years, and just got a grant to design more, Leigh said.
Greg Sanchez-Chavez Jr., 38, has been in prison for three years. He came in without a high school diploma and now is a carpentry teaching assistant. “It’s something that we can do to better ourselves when we get out,” he said of the training program. “We’ve seen it work.”
Like most prison career-training programs, these are postsecondary: Participants must have a GED certificate or be pursuing one. They also must have a good behavior record. Some state prisons, though not Idaho’s, require that inmates be close to release, so the skills they learn will be up to date. Other states make sure prisoners aren’t scheduled to leave too soon, because otherwise they won’t have time to finish a training program. (Women’s prisons, which tend to be smaller, have fewer programs than prisons for men.)
An even bigger, and longer-tenured, training program goes on down the street at a different prison, the Idaho State Correctional Institution, in its Correctional Industries shops, in what is elsewhere often a dead-end workplace.
“I wanted to show you the stereotype!” Matt DeTour, a job training specialist staffer, said as he walked to the license-plate machine in one corner of Idaho Correctional Industries’ one and a half acres of shop and classroom space. The wall is papered with extra copies of vanity plates the guys found inspiring or just funny: YEAR 1, DSCIPLE, GOD 1ST, FREEBRD, SUPBABY, GOT ELK.
License plates symbolize the bad reputation of prison shops: mindless chores paying inmates pennies per hour while the government entities that buy the plates pay market rates. Even when there’s no credential or formal educational component involved, prison jobs still improve post-prison employment rates. But they fall short where it matters the most: reducing recidivism, according to a 2018 report from the American Enterprise Institute.
That’s why Leigh and DeTour are so serious about having residents earn credentials. So even for the much-maligned license plate assembly line, Correctional Industries offers a 4,000-hour quality assurance apprenticeship, registered with the U.S. Department of Labor.
Yes, the license plate process is repetitive, zipping out 10,000 to 15,000 plates a week. Yes, its primary purpose is to make money for Correctional Industries, because the complex has to pay for itself. No, the skills involved aren’t as remunerative down the road as those from the metalworking or CNC shops. But it’s a production line, and overseeing a production line “is a marketable skill,” Leigh said. And now that Covid-19 means that the prison mails the plates directly to drivers instead of shipping stacks to the DMV, DeTour wants to add a fulfillment certification.
Most of Correctional Industries is dedicated to higher-paying professions, however. CNC operator Philip Walker, 45, sat at a desk unit that looks like it came from a mass-market office furniture supply company, except that Correctional Industries workers made it themselves, down to the decorative panel etched with an American flag. Walker has such a cheerful smile that it’s hard to imagine he’s been in prison since he was 18. At that time, he couldn’t read a tape measure and could barely read words. But once he started the CNC apprenticeship, “I found my niche,” he said. “We’re always given opportunities to come up with new ideas.” He has since completed two apprenticeships, in CNC operation and cabinetmaking, over a whopping 10,000 hours, the equivalent of almost five years of full-time effort.
Walker goes before the parole board around the end of 2022. “The last guy who got out from this position is making 28 bucks an hour,” he said. “I’m about to be successful! Hopefully, almost!”
Walker’s success depends on employers setting aside their longstanding fears and stereotypes, and seeing instead the assets that graduates of these programs offer. “We have this population in our prisons that have a lot of skills … but no one will [hire] them because they’re felons,” said Leigh, the re-entry manager. “There’s this whole untapped employment market.”
The tight job market helps by making employers more hungry for workers. Beyond that, the state’s corrections department takes several routes to attack stigma and improve released felons’ employability. Leigh educates employers through a website with success stories about former prisoners, employer tours and even job fairs at the prisons. While there, companies can see that the prison’s teachers and coordinators keep shop and training materials up to date.
Delaney of the Vera Institute said employer visits can reduce stigma. They “go in and see what people are doing, speak to them, realize that these are just people,” she said. “It’s much easier to see how you would hire this person, especially when they have the skills that you need as an employer.”
“We’re doing everything we can. [But] vocational training is expensive and you can only push it so far.”Rich Hull, who teaches welding at Idaho Correctional Institution-Orofino
DeTour and Leigh brought a local manufacturer in to tour Correctional Industries in July. “They were very excited to see that we had people trained on this,” DeTour said, gesturing to a machine called a CNC press brake, a computer-programmed heavyweight that bends metal into custom shapes.
The company could also see the quality of the work. DeTour showed off a miniature motorcycle that one resident made entirely from metal scraps. “These guys are really talented,” he said.
The manufacturer has hired one former prisoner and is optimistic about his success, a spokeswoman said, asking that the company’s name not be shared since its experience with the program is still so limited.
And like any good workforce training program anywhere, the career-tech educators in Idaho’s correctional system try to align training programs to what local companies need. Hence the dairy class. The Idaho Dairymen’s Association “came to me,” Rehder said, begging for workers. (OK, he admitted: “I was putting feelers out there.”)
Images of potato fields aside, Idaho is the third-biggest dairy producing state in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. With pay lower than in construction, the farms are thirsty for workers. By later this fall, 100 men will have completed the dairy course since Rehder started it in March 2019, he said. Even that’s nowhere near enough. “Idaho’s dairy farmers — they want 20 [men] a month from here. There’s no way we can give them that,” Rehder said.
If some people criticize taxpayers’ covering the cost to train inmates, others criticize the low wages inmates earn for prison jobs. Orofino prison residents earn as little as 20 cents an hour for some jobs.
Residents at the various prison campuses didn’t seem troubled — because they’re getting trained, not just slogging away. “The real value in this is when we get on the other side of the fences,” said Steven Parker, 47, who has completed an 8,000-hour drafting apprenticeship in Correctional Industries. “The greatest value is in the future.”
Inmate training is most controversial when the jobs are dangerous. California is the state that has relied most prominently for years on prison labor to fight wildfires — even though state licensing, certification and parole requirements have made it essentially impossible for felons to work as firefighters after release. California reduced those barriers last fall — only to announce soon afterward that it was consolidating its prison hotshot training programs.
Idaho has inmate fire crews, too. In Orofino, where the sky in July was winter-pale from the Snake River fire’s smoke, two crews stood ready to deploy. When asked whether it was right to pay men $1.25 an hour to risk their lives, Warden Terema Carlin seemed defensive. “Go to the beginning of that conversation, which is what are we paying our staff?” she said. “The pay that the residents are getting is probably comparable.” If the legislature could see the value of paying correctional staff, “I think that would trickle down” to what they allocate to pay the inmates, she said.
More generally, it’s the state legislature that sets the prison budget, which in turn pays prison workers, Carlin said. In other words, if Idahoans care about how much prisoners earn to risk their lives for the safety of the public they’re not allowed to live among, they should call their state representatives.
DeTour had his own answer to people who don’t want public funding of prisoners’ education, one that ties together the two criticisms. “These guys work for everything they have. And they work for everything I have,” he said. “Their work pays my salary. There’s no free lunches here.”
The bigger problem is that the best programs don’t serve many inmates. Michigan’s esteemed Vocational Village program is widely considered the national model. It not only provides certifications but also houses students in a separate wing so they can support one another. One of its sites features a 45-foot-high scaffold to teach tree-trimming for utility companies, a career with rising demand. To date, Vocational Village boasts an extraordinary 2 percent recidivism rate, said Chris Gautz, a Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman.
And yet at any given time it can serve only 450 of Michigan’s roughly 32,000 state prisoners, Gautz said. Why? It doesn’t have the space, and it doesn’t have the money to expand the education areas. It’s expensive to expand a prison, because along with walls you have to build fences and other security systems.
Moreover, prisons struggle to afford teachers. Many prison programs are run by community and technical colleges, which are subject to state budget cuts. (For that reason, the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola now has inmates teach career classes.) Career-tech instructors are hard to find even for conventional school classrooms, because they can earn far more as workers than as teachers.
“Being here is not like being in prison. Because we’re treated with respect. We’re not just a number.”Philip Walker, an inmate in Idaho who has completed more than 10,000 hours’ worth of apprenticeships
The Idaho Correctional Institution-Orofino, a smaller prison in a small town, has little space or staff, with the equivalent of two and a half teachers who cover GED and re-entry as well as careers. The prison offers some informal programs that teach work skills, such as a dog-training wing and a large garden. One former inmate started a Linux Lab; now men gather there — unpaid, and full time when Covid restrictions are not in force — to teach one another how to code and create computer projects. Their successes include an educational intranet video website called O-Tube. The O stands for “Offender.”
Rich Hull teaches an 18-hour introductory welding class for inmates, the same one he teaches at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston. Lewis-Clark pays Hull’s salary, and he volunteers additional time to make the prison class happen. With the certificate from that course, you can get your foot in the door as a welding assistant, at $20 an hour, and if you show diligence “you will advance,” he said.
With the exception of Correctional Industries, which sells products, Idaho’s prison career-technical education programs always have to be “balancing cost and return for the taxpayer,” said Hull, standing at the welding booths. “We’re doing everything we can. [But] vocational training is expensive and you can only push it so far.”
He said he wished the public could understand the value of the training. “Same thing as preschool — a lot of return for a little bit of money,” he said. “It’s more than two plus two equals four. We’re getting seven.”
The morning was rapidly warming, and Hull’s sleeves were rolled up. The only place he could find for the welding booths at Orofino was outdoors, against a building that’s roofed like a lean-to. Hull runs some sessions of the class in February and March, when it’s 40 degrees. The inmates take them.
“It prepares the guys for outside welding!” Hull said.
To DeTour, the men he works with are his colleagues — whether they’re wearing an employee’s or a prisoner’s ID badge. He purposely doesn’t look up what crimes they’ve committed. “We just try to do everything we can to treat everybody with as much respect as humanly possible.”
Though Idaho prison administrators are trying to implement that respect across the system — they call inmates “residents,” for instance — the men repeatedly said they felt it most strongly in their classrooms, their escape from the drama, dreariness and dehumanization of prison life.
“Just coming here, sometimes, it doesn’t even feel like we’re in prison,” said Greg Sanchez-Chavez Jr. in Vocational 4. “It’s just like a regular workplace.” The teacher “treats you just like a normal person.”
Philip Walker, the CNC operator, said: “Being here is not like being in prison. Because we’re treated with respect. We’re not just a number.”
And the certifications help a person’s self-esteem. The inmate-students who spoke to The Hechinger Report seemed beaten down by the experience of incarceration. Most had been addicted to drugs when they committed their crimes. They felt terrible about having failed their families. They wanted a job, which meant a chance at redemption.
Job training in prison “should be mandatory,” said Nicholas Linn, 30, an inmate at Idaho State Correctional Center. “I think it is essential to rehabilitation. Without the education piece, a lot of people, including myself, we’re dirtbags.”
Behind bars, Linn has taken carpentry, masonry, clerical skills — every class he can. “I’ve never liked myself before prison,” he said. “I was not the person I was meant to be. … This is the first time I’ve ever felt like I had a chance.”
Steven Parker, the drafting apprenticeship graduate, was calm and professional as he discussed his drafting and carpentry work, and showed off handsome beds he’d built for state park shelters. But when he was asked what the public should know about prison career education programs, his wide-set blue eyes suddenly filled with tears. “They’re important. They’re important,” the father of two grown children said. “We’re doing something productive. It’s made a change. It’s made a difference.”
Even if it sometimes looks like playing farmer. While tagging Clyde the training cow, Steven Hanson imagined going to college. Maybe he could start a cattle farm someday, he said. Maybe he could hire veterans with PTSD.
Yes, “there’s that stigma of being labeled a felon,” he said. But he’s using his prison time “to become a productive member of society.”
This story about prison education programs was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter. Additional funding was provided by the Institute for Citizens & Scholars.