Jackson — Nicholas Wood will leave prison a free man on Tuesday when he completes his 15-month sentence for felony cocaine possession. He’ll also leave with multiple skilled trade certifications and a new job he’ll start the same day.
Wood, 34, will be among the first wave of parolees graduating from the Vocational Village at Parnell Correctional Facility in Jackson, the second state prison to offer the skilled trade training program.
“It’s one thing you got when you get out you know you don’t have to worry about,” said Wood, who has been to prison before but this time lined up a job through the Local 70 roofers union in Howell when officials visited the vocational school.
“Used to be we don’t know if we’re going to find work, to (now) picking what job we’re going to take. It’s awesome.”
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder toured the new prison school Monday, meeting with Wood and other inmates in the Jackson program, which officially launched in late August.
The program is part of the state’s efforts to reduce recidivism rates by helping to prepare prisoners for life outside the bars so they are less likely to end up returning.
Felony records can make it difficult to find gainful employment, but employers like Alta Equipment Company in Delta Township and Rockford Construction in Grand Rapids have hired some graduates.
Officials credit various factors, including re-entry programs and declining crime rates, for the state’s falling prison population. There are 39,803 inmates in Michigan prisons, the lowest number since 1993, said spokesman Chris Gautz.
“It helps us get down even further and faster,” Snyder said after touring the vocational school. “By having the people go out and start by walking into a great job, a great career opportunity, that’s dramatically different than what most prisoners anywhere in this country would face.”
At capacity, the Jackson prison school will have 240 vocational trade students, 32 inmate tutors and 85 Pell Grant tutors. The state spent $2 million to open the school, which includes modern equipment for inmates to train on and earn certifications in carpentry, masonry, machining tools and robotics, automotive technology, truck driving and forklift operation.
“By the time I’m done with this program, I’ll be able to run any machine you see here,” Rodney Jones of Detroit, 43, said as he operated a robotic arm in a machining classroom. “This was my first time seeing a robot. First time ever touching a robot.”
A similar vocational school opened last year at the Richard A. Handlon prison in Ionia, and Snyder is urging lawmakers for more funding to open a third at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti.
That’s a strong possibility, said state Rep. Dave Pagel, R-Oronoko Township, who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee on the corrections budget and toured the school with Rep. Julie Alexander of Hanover.
While the program is new, official say the early results are promising. Roughly 60 students in the Ionia program have earned parole, and nearly 70 percent have left with a job.
Kyle Counts, 25, completed the machining training at Handlon late last year and is now tutoring fellow inmates in Jackson as he awaits February release on armed robbery and concealed weapons charges. He hopes to land a job with a Detroit automaker.
“If they would look past the felonies, past everything and just hire me for me and the skills and talents that I’ve acquired because of this program, I have zero doubt in my mind I would get a job,” he said.
Antonio Sanders of Detroit, 33, is training in masonry. He’s looking forward to his release on drug and weapon charges in 14 months, but in 10 years he hopes to return as an employer to hire some of the students himself.
“I feel like it changed my life, because I can do something for my children,” he told the governor. “It will give me a chance to give back to the community I feel I harmed.”