Prisoners gain opportunity in growth industry: tree trimming

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Jackson — DTE Energy needs more tree trimmers to help prevent downed lines and keep the power on for Michiganians, so the utility is launching a training program for prisoners to join the workforce. 

The DTE Energy Foundation offered $100,000 grant to get the program started at the Vocational Village at Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson. 

The partnership includes the Michigan Department of Corrections and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. 

Student inmate Ted O'Hearn, left, makes sure his ropes are secure with the help of fellow student inmate Jeffrey Gunnells, right, during the demonstration.

Together, the agencies are training the first 24 tree trimmers.

"Seeing will be believing,” Gerry Anderson, DTE executive chairman, said Tuesday during an event at the prison introducing the program. 

"A criminal record shouldn’t bring with it a lifetime sentence of unemployment, but too often it does.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, on Tuesday, hailed the collaboration as one that would help close the “skills gap” in Michigan or 100,000 “good-paying jobs” left unfilled. Some 500 employers, meanwhile, stand ready to hire “returning citizens” who’ve recently finished prison sentences.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer shakes hands with inmates in the tree trim training program after speaking at the Parnell Vocational Village in Jackson, Tuesday morning, July 9, 2019.

Last year, DTE “removed the box” inquiring about applicants’ felony status, said Anderson. The company has hired 30 ex-cons in recent years, a fraction of its 10,000-person workforce.

Once the tree trimming program is in full swing, 40 trained ex-cons are expected to graduate from the program each year. When prisoners serve their terms or are released on parole, they’ll be eligible to join the union and get a job with a tree-trimming company.

Keeping the lights on

Anderson said that “once we demonstrate success (with the pilot program), we will expand to other career paths at DTE,” including electrical work. He says ex-cons given a second chance become some of the company's most loyal employees. 

DTE supplies power to more than 20% of state residents, meaning 30,000-plus miles of power lines in southeast Michigan are near trees. Falling trees are responsible for about 70% of power outages, according to the utility.

Inmate student Jeffrey Gunnells prepares to rescue this mannequin during a demonstration at the Parnell Vocational Village, Tuesday morning, July 9, 2019.

DTE trims trees on a five-year cycle, Joe Musallam, director of tree-trimming at DTE, said. 

But that requires a workforce of trimmers 1,000 to 1,300 strong. About 800 trimmers live locally, but the rest have to be brought in from out-of-state.

Heidi Washington, director of the MDOC, said this was “the right time, right place, right partnership” as the prison system continues to expand its career training options.

The Vocational Village program exists at Parnall and the Richard A. Handlon facility in Ionia and will debut later this year at the Women’s Huron Valley facility in Ypsilanti. Between the two existing programs, more than 400 prisoners are learning job skills, along with others studying for college credit using Pell Grants.

Prison is “not a place people choose to be,” but that doesn’t mean it can’t be productive, said Washington. Work-training programs “improve the system for everybody” and are necessary in a state where some 70% of inmates up for parole are granted it.

Flipping a switch

Vocational Village and college credit-seeking inmates are housed together, said Parnall Warden Melinda Braman. The thinking is that having such motivated, future-minded people living together creates a positive culture that keeps participants focused and on the right track, one that will prepare them for leaving prison.

“It’s like a switch flips,” Braman said. “They carry themselves differently. Self-confidence builds.”

The work schedule, 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., not only builds realistic work habits but gives the inmate a track record employers can trust.

Students inmates demonstrate their skills on poles in front of Block 10 at the Parnell Vocational Village, Tuesday morning, July 9, 2019.

Prisoners can already learn a variety of skills from Braille transcribing to welding and carpentry. 

Dean Bradley, a business manager for IBEW Local 17, called tree-trimming work “a tough trade, one of the most hazardous jobs in a utility,” but one that provides a “pathway to the middle class” for someone willing to do the work.

“It’s no easy feat,” Bradley said. “It’s not for the faint of heart.”

Inmate Jeffrey Gunnells, 49, is serving time for an armed robbery conviction out of Wayne County, and said partaking in a work-training program removes some of the “pain, remorse and regret” inmates feel.

“For years, we went to bed wanting the state to do more for us,” Gunnells said, speaking of preparation for life after prison. “This is it."

Speaking to his fellow inmates, seated in several rows of the audience, he said: “don’t take it for granted. One decision can affect the rest of your life.”