Solving Arizona’s Skills Gap
In most prisons, news that some of the inmates have gotten hold of hand tools and are going to work on a wall would ordinarily be cause for alarm.
But every rule has its exception, and in this case it’s the Lewis Arizona State Prison Complex, west of Phoenix. The inmates are prisoners with fewer than 60 days to go on their sentences. And the wall is a structure inside the prison, overseen by a local contractor called Top Quality Masonry, that is used to teach the inmates skills that could land them jobs when they are released.
“We have a wall that’s put up and taken down again. It goes up again, it comes down again,” says Karen Hellman, division director for inmate programs and reentry at the Arizona Department of Corrections. “Construction is booming in Arizona, which is a fabulous thing, but [home builders] are short of labor. In this case it was a perfect marriage. They needed workers, and we had people who needed work.”
It’s part of a collaboration between the state prison system and Arizona employers called the Second Chance program. Since 2017, at Lewis and two other prisons in the state, selected inmates have been offered intensive vocational training before they are released. What sets the program apart is that private-sector employers are going into the prisons and setting up training programs tailored specifically to the kinds of jobs they are trying to fill. Members of the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona (HBACA) have mocked up a construction site inside the Lewis complex. They started with electrical work— teaching inmates to run wires through three framed walls—and painting. The training has expanded to include drywall, framing, door and trim, plumbing—and, yes, masonry.
“From day one they start with a trowel in their hands,” says Michael Summers, general manager of Top Quality Masonry, an HBACA member. “It’s hands-on, five days a week.” Summers says, “I’ve got about eight guys out of the program who are really good,” and he’s planning to hire more. “I’ve been involved in a lot of high schools and trade schools, and this has been my best avenue for employees,” he says. Asked if there are risks associated with hiring people straight out of prison, he says, “I’ve had no issues. A lot of these guys are minor offenders. We’re not hiring from death row.”
And yet the Second Chance program doesn’t only deal with low-risk offenders. It also tries to help inmates whom the experts think have a moderate to high risk of committing new crimes after they are released. “If they’re low risk, we don’t need to intervene,” says Hellman. “What we do is we identify inmates who are at high risk of returning to prison—the more difficult ones. There’s a battery of assessments— types of crimes, how many, age, behavior inside, all those factors. Then we say, ‘In your last 60 days, let’s really prepare you.’ We don’t want them coming back through the door.”
Hellman says that of 2,116 inmates who have gone through the program so far, “We’ve had 1,284 job placements. So about a 50 percent placement rate.” She keeps her expectations realistic—“It’s not like we’ve had a magic wand to fix them and suddenly they’re going to be a model employee,” she says—but she has noted pleasant surprises. “We’ll get women going into electrician jobs, which is great because it’s atypical work for women. It sort of cancels itself out: they’ve got a criminal record, but they’re women in an atypical job, which is attractive to employers.”
It’s too soon to tell what effect the Second Chance program is having on Arizona’s recidivism rate, which is around 40 percent, although Hellman says “it’s trending well.” She says, “We’d like to get it down to 30 percent.”
HBACA chief executive Connie Wilhelm ticked off the benefits for her association’s members in testimony last April before the U.S. House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources. “First, 60 percent of Arizona’s prison population is between the ages of 18 and 39,” Wilhelm said. “Due to the physical nature of construction, this age demographic was generally interested in more physically challenging jobs, and many have previous construction experience. Second, inmates recognize the opportunity to enter a career that would allow them to support themselves and their families. Third, when we allow ex-offenders to work we assist individuals to become productive members of our communities, we assist our employers to address the labor shortage, and we assist taxpayers and our communities by keeping former offenders out of prison.”
Even so, Wilhelm told the subcommittee, there are hurdles to making a program like this succeed. “First, there is the challenge of finding employers who are willing to take a chance on a former offender. We have had employers join our program only to leave after an incident with a former offender. Additionally, we have had employers tell us that they don’t want the liability of hiring a former offender.”
But the biggest obstacle to the successful employment of released inmates, according to people involved in the Second Chance program, is a mundane one: transportation. Many people coming out of prison have no car, no money, and suspended driver’s licenses due to court fines or other penalties. In the construction trades the problem is especially severe. New housing developments are often far from public transportation. And temperatures in Arizona get so high that the workday starts early; employees sometimes need to leave for work at 3 a.m. The governor’s office has begun talks with the major ride-hailing platforms to see if some kind of arrangement can be made for people in the Second Chance program.
Summers of Top Quality Masonry sends a truck to pick up his Second Chance masons, or helps them out with bus passes. He believes the program is good business. “There are challenges no matter who you’re trying to hire,” he says. “These guys are serious about turning their lives around.”
Summers adds, “One thing I do want to say is that most of the guys who come to me really care. I get a lot of Christmas messages.”