Michael Dinardo, who teaches carpentry and masonry to prisoners through the Idaho Department of Correction, crossed paths last summer with a former student who had been released from custody and was working for a drywall company in Boise.
“He was very grateful and thankful for the classes,” said Dinardo, a U.S. Navy veteran who has built piers, buildings, runways and other structures all over the world. Dinardo remembered that the student had had a drug problem. “He said he was now clean, and he was gainfully employed and he was very happy. It gives you a sense of accomplishment to know that you did your job.”
Dinardo would like to see more of his students experience the sense of accomplishment that comes from doing a job well. To that end, he is looking for employers who want to tap into the pool of trained ex-prisoners.
The issue of hiring prisoners is a complex one. There is enough employer bias against former prisoners that many states have passed “ban the box” legislation, promoted by civil rights group, that asks employers to remove from job applications a check box asking if applicants have a criminal record.
Yet, when Dinardo gave a presentation Feb. 23 at the Idaho Associated General Contractors Workforce Development Forum, some people raised their hands to ask how they could learn more about tapping into the labor pool he’d been working with. With the unemployment rate under 4 percent in Idaho, builders, like other employers, are looking everywhere they can for skilled workers in order to get their projects done.
There are advantages to hiring prisoners. One is a tax credit of up to $2,400, similar to the one available to companies that hire veterans. They’re also bonded up to $5,000 through the Idaho Department of Labor.
Bill Hale, the education program manager for the Department of Correction, said there are other advantages as well: The prisoners, unlike many other job-seekers, have been instructed in a core curriculum that includes skills such as showing up on time ready to work, paying attention to instructions, basic construction skills, safety, and being accountable for your actions.
“We ingrain and incorporate those as much as possible in everything we do,” said Hale, who estimates he has shepherded 1,500 or 2,000 students through the core curriculum of National Center for Construction Education and Research, or NCCER.
Many employers worry about the behaviors that landed former prisoners in the corrections system in the first place. Dinardo said his students don’t seem different to him from other people he has worked with in his long career.
“In the three and a half years that I have worked for the prison, I have never had any kind of disciplinary problems or fights or anything,” Dinardo said. “I can understand the apprehension, but a lot of these guys are willing to work. They want to succeed and not go back to prison, they have families and want to be part of life again.”
There are 8,000 people incarcerated in Idaho’s 10 prisons, most of them in the Treasure Valley. Prisoners can learn carpentry, drywall, masonry, and wiring. Like the state’s institutions of higher educations, the Idaho corrections system is now looking at a job skills badge program for prisoners in Pocatello similar to one developed by the state’s office of Career and Technical Education, Hale said.
“It’s one thing to train a person, but how do you prove that to a potential employer?” he said.
Offenders can also gain job and life skills experience through community work centers and through corrections industries jobs.
Dinardo hears directly from employers who are looking for a way to give his released students a second chance, but he would like to hear from more of them. He encourages employers to call him at (208) 331-2760 ext. 20902 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hale recently started an advisory committee and is looking for feedback from employers to help the prisoners succeed at work; he can be reached at 208-336-0740 or email@example.com.
“Some of them didn’t have the proper raising; some of them didn’t have parents who were there sometimes; some of them fall into the wrong location at the wrong time,” he said.
“These guys are looking to be a part of society again and they want to get out. It’s our job to teach them and then you’ll see them on the street, you may even be working with them and you’ll never know they were inside,” Dinardo said. “They may be your neighbors.”
Anne Wallace Allen is editor of the Idaho Business Review.