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Job training for incarcerated people can help fill labor shortages upon release.
Photo illustration by Teresa Tauchi

Reading media headlines from the last several months, there are many issues plaguing the U.S. economy. Labor shortages. Logistical bottlenecks. A supply chain crisis. It’s no secret the economy has problems.

You can bicker about what sparked these cascading issues, but the dilemma remains. We need to find solutions to the problems. One of the most practical ways to do this is also one of the most overlooked.

Where can we find a ready and willing supply of capable workers? Where can we find skilled and trained individuals with no other immediate needs?

For starters, we could consider the nearly 2 million people warehoused in U.S. jails, detention centers and prisons. Surely, we can find decent candidates inside.

Incarcerated people, for the most part, come from marginalized, denigrated and disenfranchised demographics. For these underprivileged people, it has felt like the economy doesn’t have a place for them. Economic opportunity and prosperity have been elusive. 

In the face of adversity and destitution, many people resort to crime as their only means of escape. This leads them to even more adversity, destitution and an assortment of other troubling afflictions. 

This, in turn, gives birth to a cycle of poverty and incarceration that ripples down through generations, holding people down. 

This narrative doesn’t have to persist. Many people behind bars are shedding the role in which they have been cast and choosing instead to assume authorship over their lives to forge a better path forward. They’re refusing to accept the revolving door of incarceration as their reality. They’re striving to reintegrate into society by assimilating themselves into a productive role within the economy.

It would now seem that circumstances have aligned themselves to make the disproportionate odds a little less grim and forbidding. We now have an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. To be clear, I’m not talking about exploiting people in prison by making them work jobs that only pay cents. I’m talking about preparing people for careers once they leave prison.

If one truly wishes to lower recidivism rates, the ideal place to start would be helping people secure rewarding and meaningful employment. Make no mistake about it: Money and gains are a primary motive behind many crimes in America. The fight for financial freedom runs parallel to the fight against mass incarceration.

At Sumter Correctional Institution in Florida, where I am, many inmates are preparing themselves to fill whatever needs society has once they’re released. Numerous courses are available to help people learn about various skills, trades and professions, such as truck-driving and energy tech. Inmates are taking advantage of these resources to give themselves a chance at finally securing a decent, stable career. 

Take, for instance, the issues with the supply chain. It has been widely reported that the country needs truck drivers and port workers. Courses at Sumter C.I. help inmates prepare to fill those roles.

The institution offers weekly sessions to help people learn how to obtain a commercial driver license. Classes study CDL manuals from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. Video instructions are offered, and the institution has recently made efforts to acquire a simulator for hands-on practice.

The instructor for these courses is Christopher Chambers, who was a truck driver before coming to prison. 

“These are some really good guys we’ve been getting in these classes,” Chambers said. “Everybody brings positive energy and enthusiasm to this subject. You see in their eyes that they’re eager to get out, work and earn themselves a little slice of the American pie. This gives them an opportunity to avoid having to go back to the same streets that landed them in this predicament.”

But taking this course doesn’t grant individuals an actual CDL itself. Right now, it merely introduces them to some of the trade’s practical knowledge.

Chambers recently wrote a letter to the owner of a truck driving school that operates several trucking schools in Florida, requesting sponsorship help. 

The school partners with trucking companies, who cover the cost of schooling in exchange for a job after students graduate. Chambers wondered if they might consider a similar arrangement at Sumter C.I. — the school could offer commercial learner permits inside and, upon release, applicants could attend the school to finish training and earn their CDL. Normally, CDL training and certification costs $6,500, according to Chambers. 

People could become fully employed within weeks of leaving prison.

“It’s a win-win,” Chambers said. “People essentially get a free CDL and career placement, and the companies ensure themselves a steady workforce.”

Chambers’ course isn’t just for people who are close to release. It’s also attracting people with longer sentences, like Michael Persaud. Persaud is more than 26 years into a life sentence, but he signed the waiting list to take the next CDL course.

“I’m still fighting to get my sentence overturned, and I have full faith that this will eventually happen,” Persaud said. “Once it does, it’ll be nice to have a good job to get out to. Trucking seems to be the perfect job for me. I get to travel the country and make good money while doing it.”

In addition to the trucking class, inmates can also earn various credentials related to the certified logistics field. Inmates must participate in the PRIDE vocational training program to have access to those tests.

Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises, or PRIDE, is a Florida nonprofit that trains inmates in such skills and trades as press-printing and furniture-crafting. It is a controversial program because it sells the goods inmates produce; some feel that this exploits inmates. However, inmates are at least afforded an opportunity to receive additional vocational training outside of what their institution offers.

Marcus Thomas received a certification in wastewater management through PRIDE. He will study energy tech, certified logistics and CDL classes next. Thomas has done everything possible to accumulate certifications and credentials in prison.

“I’m trying to give myself options,” Thomas said. “I know that this is the best way for me to reach prosperity without ever having to worry about coming back to prison.”

When I mentioned to Thomas how our pride can sometimes interfere with us sticking to the straight and narrow, he gave me an amused, knowing smile.

“Obviously we want to get out of here and live life to the fullest. It’s kinda hard to imagine doing that while flipping burgers or mopping the floor somewhere,” Thomas said. “Getting one of these other jobs is perhaps my way of reconciling the two worlds and making the impossible come true.”  

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Bojan Jesic is a Bosnian refugee and a writer, who has authored nine books. He is incarcerated in Florida.