Tamara Porter, a professor from the State University of New York, teaches a geology class to incarcerated men as part of a program called Hudson Link, which provides higher education and other skills (Photo by Jason Andrew)

Editor's note: This is an installment in a two-part series on hiring the formerly incarcerated. Read the companion story here, a look at how Corporate America is giving people with criminal records a second chance. 

Every week inside the Everglades Correctional Institution, a group of incarcerated men get together to pore over textbooks and compare notes about sedimentation tanks, ask questions about nitrification of microorganisms, and agonize over microbiology and algebraic equations.

Their goal: to make it through the prison’s peer-led Wastewater Operator Course, pass a taxing Florida Department of Environmental Protection state exam, and walk out of prison as certified Wastewater Treatment Plant Operators. For those who do, they’re presented with opportunities in the green-jobs industry with stability, high pay and benefits, all of which serve as important lifelines leaving prison.

“It’s a rare course in that not many prisons offer anything like this in Florida,” said incarcerated instructor Ryan Moser, who wrote about the course’s success last year. For people who get the opportunity, he added, “their dedication is beyond anything I could have expected. They want to learn. They study for hours and hours. I didn’t think I could get a group of guys together who would be so serious about something.”

People in prison rarely get the opportunity for holistic job training to help them transition out of prison into in-demand industries. But there are some programs across the U.S. that show what’s possible—programs that focus on both hard and soft skills, facilitate support networks and professional relationships, and provide pipelines to stable and well-paid professions.

Beyond the Wastewater Treatment Course in Florida, some examples include the Friends of San Quentin News, which oversees a successful newsroom out of California’s San Quentin State Prison and is spearheading expansion into new prisons; Defy Ventures, a national program supporting entrepreneurship; and The Last Mile, which provides in-prison technology training.

These programs are huge departures from what state prisons traditionally offer to incarcerated people. Typical prison jobs, which pay pennies on the hour, usually revolve around servicing the prison, including cooking, janitorial, maintenance, and secreterial work. Incarcerated people also produce products like clothes and license plates for outside companies.

States often fund vocational training classes, though they tend to be strictly focused on the trades. “They can teach you how to do masonry, be a bricklayer, carpentry, automotive repair, computer repair,” said Jesse Vasquez, who was editor-in-chief of the San Quentin News before his sentence was commuted and he was released from prison. He’s now executive director of Friends of San Quentin News, which facilitates fundraising and expansion of the paper.

Vocational training, however, has its limitations. “It doesn’t require teamwork, collaboration, technology, a speciality skill or communication,” observed Vasquez. “If you want high-performing individuals with high work ethic, good communication skills, and the ability to work as a team, you have to create a different system inside.”

San Quentin News is a full-fledged newsroom run by the incarcerated, with support from outside advisors. The work has prepared newsroom staff for jobs in nonprofit leadership, media, communication, and advocacy. “I was positioned for success because I was in an environment where they nurtured my learning, there were tools I could grasp hands on, and there were people to guide me through the process if I didn’t know something,” Vasquez said. “Those are three instrumental components for someone to function on a corporate level.”

Brushing Up on Social Skills

Moser, the Florida instructor, emphasizes the importance of soft skills, given that most prison job-training programs don’t focus on them. “The things that employers look for, a lot of times we don’t have them because we’ve gotten out of practice,” he said. He focuses an entire class of the Wastewater Operator Course on soft skills and resume building. “We try to prepare the guys beyond studying. You have to work well with others, show up for work on time, have a positive attitude.”

Two outside nonprofits are also working to bring diverse skills and job training into prison. Defy Ventures, which currently works in 16 prisons in eight states, supports so-called Entrepreneurs in Training (or EITs) with programs including an entrepreneurial bootcamp and business accelerator. “We’ve seen that entrepreneurship can be a really transformative context for people because it requires you to challenge self-limiting beliefs,” said Defy’s CEO Andrew Glazier. “Vocational programs can be great, but a lot of times they neglect the whole mindset question.”

Studying in professor Porter's class at the Sullivan Correctional Facility in Fallsburg, NY (Photo by Jason Andrew)

The program realizes not all participants will become entrepreneurs, but the idea of the curriculum is to build confidence and connections, develop a holistic set of job skills, and even help participants to work through trauma. Bringing volunteers into the prison for programs also results in powerful relationship-building that can support the incarcerated participants when they come home. “There are these deeply human social interactions that are transformative by themselves, both for the Entrepreneurs in Training and for our volunteers, who have all of their beliefs challenged about the justice system and who's inside of it.”

Coding Skills, With a Holistic Approach

The Last Mile began in 2010 with a focus on entrepreneurship, but found “the pipeline to employment post-release was not scalable,” according to executive director Syd Heller. So the program shifted to teach coding skills. The Last Mile now operates at 15 facilities across six states with a curriculum covering web development fundamentals, MERN development and audio and video production. That’s alongside an innovative workforce-development program providing graduates of the coding program the chance to gain real-life work experience and have a portfolio of work before they enter the tech job market.

Like the other programs, The Last Mile focuses on holistic support, professional networking, and the teaching of initiative and self-agency. “We’ve really tried to re-humanize those who have been dehumanized by giving them ownership of things and giving them real opportunities,” said Heller. “We have a franchise approach where we centrally manage all our equipment– we don’t rely on Departments of Corrections–and because of that we’ve built this really cohesive environment our students can step into.”

The Last Mile programs prompt participants to create a re-entry plan to map out the support they have, the support they need, and their career aspirations. “After they’re released,” said Heller, “our support changes to provide equipment people may need, such as laptops.” The Last Mile also built a community within the web-development profession to help support participants after they come home and help them find jobs.

The Last Mile, Defy, and Friends of San Quentin News all work to support participants in re-entry, a daunting task in which formerly-incarcerated people have to build their life, adapt to new cultural norms, find a job, and begin supporting themselves. Defy has an alumni association that provides technology, resume, and interview workshops, individual action plans and a support network focused on stable employment.

At Friends of San Quentin News, “We’ve identified the roles the newsroom prepares people for. Now it’s a matter of who can we partner up with and how can we create a pipeline so we can get internships for people coming home,” Vasquez says. One missing component: “Having corporate representatives come into the prison to see the hands-on training people go through.”

Moser, too, believes there can be stronger partnerships from outside industry. “I can train somebody for months, they can pass the state exam and be ready for a new career, but the disconnect is we have no communication with the actual treatment plants and no ability to start a network from inside,” he said.

Improved job training in prison is meaningless “if we don’t follow it up with some kind of re-entry task force to help with job placement,” Moser said. “If the re-entry element isn’t there, we’re limiting the success rate of people who get out of prison.”

Emily Nonko is a Brooklyn, NY-based reporter who writes about real estate, architecture, urbanism and design. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, Curbed and other publications.