DeKalb sheriff launches job training program for jail inmates

Some of the newest students at Georgia Piedmont Technical College reside in a high-rise less than two miles away. But the towering building is not one of luxury.

It is the DeKalb County jail, and these nine inmates are the first to participate in a job training initiative to make sure they never return.

“This is not just about a job for them, this is going to be about a career and the next step in their live,” said Theresa Austin-Gibbons, director of WorkSource DeKalb, a county division that works with state, federal agencies and private companies to provide job training and other workforce development initiatives. Most of WorkSource DeKalb’s efforts are funded by federal grants.

Nationwide, inmate re-entry programs have been a major focus of criminal justice reform. Successful initiatives — those that help former inmates find jobs and housing and adjust to life after incarceration — make communities safer and reduce the number of people returning to jails and prisons, advocates say.

The DeKalb student-inmates — seven men and two women — will be attending classes six days a week for two semesters at Georgia Piedmont. They will graduate in April with certificates in welding and receive support from WorkSource DeKalb on resume preparation and interviewing skills in addition to being matched with potential employers.

Similar programs are in place at prisons around the state, including the Gwinnett County Correctional Institution in Lawrenceville.

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Welders are in high demand in Georgia, according to statistics from the state Department of Labor. There are about 1,480 welding and related jobs that will be open this year. Beginning welders can earn $14 or more an hour with the mean salary $37,475.

The nine inmates are all at the jail serving sentences of two years or less and were recommended for the program by staff who identified them as highly motivated and unlikely to present a security risk. They did not attend last week’s news conference where the program was unveiled.

The inmates started courses at Georgia Piedmont and will attend classes taught by the college’s instructors but in classrooms that keep them separated from the general student population. The cost for tuition and materials, which totals $3,288 per inmate, is covered by a U.S. Department of Labor grant.

DeKalb Sheriff Jeffrey Mann said he would like to add more students and possibly new lines of training if there is additional funding in the spring. And he is hoping DeKalb will serve as a model for other counties, where jails are often seen as temporary holding facilities for people awaiting prison sentences or trails or serving relatively short stints.

"Not only are our student inmates being taught on this college campus, they are also being mentored at the jail on life skills and job readiness while they learn their vocation," Mann said.

Mann has faced scrutiny over conditions and the treatment of inmates at the jail. In April and May, there were protests — one turned violent — after prisoners exposed what they said were abuses and human rights violations.

One prisoner died at the jail in May, and his family blamed it in part on lack of access to medical care.

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Mann and county leaders have allocated thousands of dollars to remove black mold in the cafeteria and dormitories, but he denies that there are widespread problems.

During Wednesday's news conference, Mann said he launched the job training program as an effort to keep inmates from returning to a life of crime upon release. Eric Cochling, executive vice president and general counsel of the Georgia Center for Opportunity, applauded the initiative.

Cochling’s organization is a non-profit think tank that has focused on making it easier for ex-offenders to re-enter the workforce. It notes that roughly half-a-million Georgians are either incarcerated or under parole or probation and there are millions more with criminal records that could make it difficult to get jobs.

“If you truly want to help returning citizens avoid recidivism, the best thing you can do is training them for work they can do immediately,” Cochling said.

He said that recidivism drops by two-thirds when a person can find and keep a job for at least six months after leaving jail or prison. “There is really no other intervention that has that kind of impact.”

The idea that they’re trying to give practical skills that are in demand in the market, that is exactly the kind of thinking that we need across the board when we think about the men and women who are coming out of prison and even jail,” Cochling said.