Construction companies are giving prisoners a second chance — and a job
Construction companies are giving prisoners a second chance — and a job

Sep 16, 2019

by Matt Blois

The day starts early for Shane Presley, a construction worker from Antioch who works for Jones Bros. He wakes up before 4 a.m. to eat breakfast. By sunrise he’s already at his job site, where he lays pipe all day long.

During the workday he looks the same as his peers, but at the end of the day a van takes him back to the Lois De Berry Special Needs Facility, a prison in West Nashville where Presley is incarcerated.

In 2017, the Tennessee Department of Correction, The Tennessee Department of Transportation and several construction companies from Middle Tennessee started a construction training program for prisoners. The prisoners receive three months of instruction and complete a two-month internship with one of the construction companies.

After the internship, many of the prisoners — all within a few years of their release date — continue to work for those companies full time. They return to prison at the end of each shift.

One of the first companies to sign on the the program was the Brentwood construction company Bell & Associates. The program’s participants have worked at several sites in Williamson County, including projects on 2nd Avenue and Henpeck Road in Franklin.

Middle Tennessee’s booming development has created a critical need for skilled construction workers and an economic environment where construction companies can pay well. Rebecca Ozols, a representative from Bell & Associates, said it’s a situation where the companies and prisoners win.

“We love giving back to the community and we love being a part of these guys’ stories in a positive way, but it is a trade war out there,” she said. “If you don’t have subs, if you don’t have people who can do the work. You’re out of luck … We’re benefiting.”

The program has graduated four classes of 12 to 15 trainees, totaling 54 participants. Twenty have since left prison, and half are still working in construction.

Sherree Hall Crowder, the director of the Affirmative Action Program at the Tennessee Department of Transportation, was one of the people that created the program.

In 2015, Hall Crowder organized a discussion with local contractors to find out what kind of support they needed.

“The consensus was they needed workers,” she said. “They had a difficult time finding people to work … The contractors came up with a curriculum they thought would be good.”

She originally tried to offer the training to people outside of prison. When few people showed interest, she reached out to TDOC to talk about training prisoners.

Prisoners go through an application and interview process before joining the program. About 100 prisoners from all over the state apply each year. Hall Crowder said the program doesn’t accept sex offenders and participants need a status that allows the to work outside the facility to be eligible.

Currently, the Lois De Berry Special Needs Facility is the only prison in the state that offers this kind of training program, but Hall Crowder hopes it will expand to other parts of the state. Prisoners from outside Middle Tennessee have to transfer to the Lois De Berry Facility to participate.

Program director Calvin Burden said the most difficult part of his job is picking 12 to 15 of the applications to accept each year. Like with any hiring process, he said it’s hard to judge someone’s character with just an application.

On the first day of class, Burden tells the participants that they’re construction workers, not inmates.

Cordell Moore, a participant from Nashville, said that gave him a sense of pride. Moore recently completed the classroom portion of the course and now works for Bell & Associates.

Pride is something the program emphasizes. Inmates don’t wear prison clothing on the outside, and they’re treated like regular employees. Bell & Associates puts part of their salaries on a debit card so prisoners can buy lunch like other employees.

Donnie Brock, a prisoner from Pikeville who has been working for Jones Bros for more than a year, called the program an incredible opportunity.

“It’s a big difference from going home with a $75 check and no skills,” Brock said. “You’re going to come out with stability.”

Prisoners can make anywhere from $15 to $21 an hour working these construction jobs. Brock compared to the 17 cents to 54 cents per hour unskilled prisoners can make working in the kitchen.

The participating companies also give prisoners same benefits benefits as regular employees, such as paid time off and a retirement account. Nicholas Rucker, a participant from Memphis working for Bell & Associates, said the money has already made a big difference. Rucker can now send money home to his family.

“That’s my motivation,” he said. “This is something that can help my family.”

According to Ozols, some participants walk out of prison with $20,000 to $30,000, skills and a job. She believes that kind of stability probably keeps participants from going back to prison.

“It’s a dissertation that basically writes itself. If you give these people these skills, what’s the percentage that stay out? It seems like a no-brainer to me,” she said. “I think this could really make a difference.”

TDOC hasn’t measured how the training program affects recidivism, but it plans to start that that type of study soon. The initial numbers seem promising. Since the program’s inception in 2017, only one of the 20 participants who left prison has returned. According to a 2018 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, more than 40 percent of state prisoners released in 2005 were arrested again within one year.

Studies on the effect of job training have revealed mixed results. In a 2018 review about the effect of job training on recidivism a group of criminal justice researchers only found eight studies that used randomized experimental methods, and the results were inconclusive.

A similar review conducted by the RAND Corporation found that job training and educational programs can reduce recidivism, but not all of those studies were randomized experiments.

Still, Burden said the program is already changing lives. Even though he lives two hours away in Jackson, Tenn., he took the job because he felt like it would have an impact.

“They’re showing their neighbors that they deserve to come home,” he said. “Quit looking at my charges and look at me as a man, right now.”