By Vance McMillan
Correctional facilities approaching capacity, residents eager to learn, and an industry in need of a labor boost. That is the scenario that led to the inception of the Welding Workforce Program at Lansing Correctional Facility (LCF) in Lansing, Kan., While building new housing units to replace ones that were more than a century old at the Lansing Correctional Facility for Kansas Department of Corrections (KDOC), JE Dunn’s team was exposed to the facility’s industries programs. KDOC’s industries programs are ways to give the incarcerated people a skill they can use when they are released. JE Dunn is always looking for ways to help people in our communities improve their lives, so we joined together with like-minded companies and Kansas City Kansas Community College (KCKCC) to form a new partnership for the correctional facility, one where all parties are committed to being part of the solution together—reducing recidivism while boosting an industry, changing lives, and improving communities.
Filling a Need
In September of 2020, seven Kansas colleges received notice from the U.S. Department of Education outlining the amount of Second Chance Pell Grant funding they would receive to provide educational opportunities for residents incarcerated in Kansas.
Under the Violent Crimes Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, incarcerated citizens lost the ability to access Pell Grants through Federal Financial Aid. In 2015, The Second Chance Experiment program was established, and then expanded in 2020 with now a total of 130 higher education institutions participating, in 42 states and Washington, D.C. Actions by Congress in December 2020 have changed these laws, and the U.S. Department of Education is anticipated to further expand educational opportunities for incarcerated citizens by 2023.
The colleges involved are supported by the Kansas Consortium on Corrections Higher Education, a coalition of 11 Kansas colleges, in partnership with the Kansas Department of Corrections (KDOC) and Kansas Board of Regents. The Consortium works closely with the agencies and colleges to ensure prison programs are of the same quality as those on campus and deliver certifications and degrees in high-demand occupations. This, coupled with private companies stepping forward to help with education expenses, paved the way to create a trades program at the correctional facility.
While Lansing already had education programs, KDOC and KCKCC knew they could now be improved and taken one step further to include trade-specific courses and certification to ensure residents are equipped to work upon release—in an industry that has a labor shortage and has plenty of opportunities to expand its workforce. “We’re one of the few in the country offering a trades program, which both elevates training and prepares them to join a workforce in need of labor,” said Cheryl Runnebaum, dean of career and technical education at KCKCC. “In fact, we’re the only one that offers technical school with work-based learning opportunities and wrap-around services such as housing, transportation, etc. to help with participants’ transition upon release.”
For KDOC, pursuing the program was a no brainer. “In Kansas, 98% of our residents will come back to the community,” said Randall Bowman, KDOC’s executive director of public affairs. “We release 6,000 residents from eight facilities each year. If we can leverage great partnerships to help get them job skills, including soft skills, to be successful, it is an all-around positive for the community.”
Once the partnership was formed between KDOC, KCKCC, JE Dunn, and other companies, the team explored options for which trade to offer at Lansing Correctional. “With so many viable choices, we really dug in to make sure we were setting the graduates up for success, and we felt welding was the best way to do that,” said Runnebaum. “Not only is the starting wage for welders a very livable one, but the trade also offers the most opportunities within the 20-credit hour timeframe of the course certification.”
The program is open to residents with a minimum of two years left on their sentences, allowing time for eligible graduates to apply their technical skills in real-life work experiences available through private industry employers. One of the employees from a company that is waiting in line to hire these graduates, Zephyr Products, learned how to TIG and Stick weld in a previous program within the walls of Lansing Correctional Facility and spoke to this inaugural class about the opportunities that this program can offer. “It was great to see a past KDOC resident come back for the grand opening of this new workforce program and share his success story of how learning to weld in a previous program at LCF helped him build a career and new life,” said Mike Comer, vice president at JE Dunn. “He now gets to pay it forward, working at a company that plans to hire future graduates of this new welding program.”
Creating Positive Partnerships
It was imperative to the success of the program to bring companies together with the same goal while also fulfilling different roles ranging from financial to educational. “In addition to the primary goal of reducing recidivism and creating opportunities for those at LCF, we wanted to ensure the benefit went beyond the classroom,” said Dara Canady, program development at KCKCC. “Our partners have different levels of involvement, but combined, they are able to offer hands-on training, work experiences, and future employment opportunities. That alone motivates participants, but another incredible benefit thanks to the partner companies like JE Dunn, is their contribution which helped to provide the program with the equipment needed to educate and train students at LCF. Additionally, Workforce Partnership of Leavenworth County and its commitment to close tuition gaps ensures students eligible for funding graduate debt free.”
A New Talent Pipeline
Throughout KDOC, there are currently 1,300 residents who are actively working while incarcerated, which speaks to the goal of preparing them to reenter society while building a consistent talent pipeline for the construction industry. “A point of emphasis for us is to change the culture in our facilities when it comes to work programs, and this partnership for the Workforce Program at LCF is a huge part of that,” said Bowman. “If we can prepare them for success and treat them well, they are less likely to go back to the behaviors that got them incarcerated in the first place. When we can offer them college credit and training, they are highly motivated to retain those private industry jobs, and they come out as tax-paying citizens with no debt and possibly even a savings account.”
This workforce program is unlike others because the partner companies are ready—and eager—to hire graduates when they are released. More programs like this one will help reduce recidivism and help with the current labor shortage in the construction industry. When you teach an incarcerated person a life skill and give them a job opportunity, you give them an opportunity to make a new life for them and their loved ones.
The inaugural class of 25 students started in August and are slated to graduate in May 2022. Though the classes are still in progress, it’s easy to see its potential. “They are all there for the same reason,” said Canady. “At the kickoff event for the cohort, many of the students felt that the companies and KCKCC were truly investing in them, and that goes a long way.”
Not only do the students feel like people are invested in them, but they are also excited by the possibilities for their lives upon graduation. “I hope to be one of the students who can make a major impact for the students ahead,” said Jealani Alley, a current student in the program.
“Graduating from the program will help me with opportunities to get a lot of my business ideas started.”
Providing hope for a future full of opportunities was a goal at the inception of the program, one that students felt at the kickoff as well as once classes began. “The kickoff event was unexpected to say the least,” said Jose Arevalo, welding student at LCF. “What stood out to me was that there was an event at all. After a couple decades of being locked up, to be part of a ‘celebration’ in OUR honor, having people speak on the ways we can succeed, it was truly humbling. It created in me a focus to complete this and not let down all the people who have given me this opportunity—and to learn a life-changing skill no one can take from me. I can leave here knowing that having this skill supersedes my past because I can essentially be a welder anywhere and be successful, never again being placed in circumstances to return to prison.”
JE Dunn Vice President Vance McMillan has contributed his seasoned expertise to CN numerous times over the years.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the Nov/Dec 2021 issue of Correctional News.