Snyder tours skills program giving hope to inmates

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Ionia — When the state’s highest office holder asked Duane O’Brien on Friday about his emerging skills as an auto mechanic, he responded humbly: “This is my life.”

It was a life and future that O’Brien, an inmate from Saginaw serving time for assault, strangulation and retail fraud at the Michigan Department of Corrections’ Richard A. Handlon facility, was uncertain of. Now when O’Brien is released in perhaps in a few months, he told Gov. Rick Snyder during a tour Friday that he has a chance at a good-paying job.

O’Brien is one of 180 inmates at the corrections department’s Vocational Village who learn a variety of skills in auto mechanics, 3-D virtual welding machines, plumbing, carpentry, electrical and construction and Computer Numerical Control, which uses computers to control machine tools.

The program, which costs about $1 million annually to operate, is for inmates who have good behavior and are within two years of completing their prison sentences. They must apply and be accepted.

Those in the program are housed together and separated from other inmates. They study and work during the day to simulate a real work environment. For their efforts, they are in turn allowed more privileges such as more telephone use, pool and table tennis as well as weekend family visits.

“This is giving me an opportunity to do something productive with myself,” said O’Brien, as he held a diagnostic tester near the engine of a Ford Focus. “I didn’t really have any certifications or anything backing me when I came in here, and it resulted in me doing things that I shouldn’t have been doing. Now that I’ve been given this opportunity to make something out of myself and find a career, I have a lot better hopes for my future.”

The hour-or-so tour Friday gave the governor a glimpse into programs — some of which have been in existence, such as welding, and other programs that are new or expanded — that are giving prisoners hope of a second chance. Prison officials surprised Snyder with a wooden-made flag made by inmates that he promised to hang in his office.

Snyder said he was “excited” to tour the prison program Friday because it was an opportunity to speak to the inmates and hear their optimism and “passion for the work they’re doing and how they are excited they are to have the opportunity to apply those skills.”

“This is what we should be doing in corrections, which is fulfilling our role to make sure we’re keeping our citizens safe while people serve their time, but at the same time, providing an opportunity for people to better themselves,” Snyder said following the tour. “And to develop skill sets because they will be re-entering society, and we want them to be successful.”

Prison officials said since the full program began in October, misconduct charges and tickets issued to inmates for problems have dramatically lowered.

DeWayne Burton, warden of the facility for the past three years, said inmates are “starting to take an interest” and so is the hiring public.

“Employers are coming in here ... I have a gentleman who has a job interview next week,” Burton said. “We have employers that have already committed to hiring prisoners. Once they see that, they (inmates) are taking a much vested interest. Their test scores are higher. They are putting more energy into it.”

Burton said prison officials are working hard to eliminate the unfortunate reality that prisoners put all the work in to succeed and “there are no jobs.” He plans to spend the next 90 days meeting with employers throughout the state. The prison recently had an open house and 50 to 60 employers came to tour the program, he said.

To have the governor endorse it “brings credibility to the program” Burton said.

Mike Long, who is an instructor in the carpentry trade program, said he’s seen success with the inmates as some of them “came in pretty green and they walk out with confidence.”

“Even if they won’t utilize this as a career opportunity, I tell the students learn it for your own personal knowledge because a house is going to be the biggest ticket item you are ever going to purchase,” said Long, who was building a unique wood wine holder. “If you can maintain that alone, it’s worth the money that you’d ever spend in your lifetime.”

Mickey Douglas, 21, of Detroit, who has served three of a five-year sentence for armed robbery, also shook the governor’s hand as he and O’Brien worked on the car. Always having a love for cars since he was a kid, Douglas said he has learned how to rebuild transmissions and work on engines.

“It was just a big mistake that I had made in my life, and I’m just trying to make a chance now,” Douglas said. “When I get out there, I don’t have to struggle to try to get a job. I will be certified in engine repair.”

Douglas said meeting the governor made him feel a little “overwhelmed but exited,” but he added he’s trying “to get us to learn more to get us jobs when we get out because it’s kind of hard for felons and convicts.”

Meanwhile, O’Brien said he has high hopes for his future with the program.

“I’ve been putting a lot into it, gotten six certifications so far, trying to be a master when I leave out of here,” he said.

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