Life

Job fair gets inmates focused on future

Mount Pleasant prison program aims to reduce recidivism, fill workforce needs

GTNS photo by Grace King

Mike Kelsey, left, with Hy-Vee, talks with inmates about job opportunities at Hy-Vee during a job fair at the Mt. Pleasant Correctional Facility on Thursday, May 9, 2019.
GTNS photo by Grace King Mike Kelsey, left, with Hy-Vee, talks with inmates about job opportunities at Hy-Vee during a job fair at the Mt. Pleasant Correctional Facility on Thursday, May 9, 2019.
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MOUNT PLEASANT — David Le, an inmate at the Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility, clutched his resume, work history and the certificates he’s earned while talking with potential employers at a job fair last week at the prison.

It was the first job fair Le had attended. While he was “slightly overwhelmed,” he also was excited to be preparing for his future.

Le has been working with a re-entry adviser with Iowa Workforce Development on thinking about what he wants to do after prison.

“Just because I’m a felon doesn’t mean I can’t move forward,” Le said. “A lot of people in the prison system aren’t looking forward to looking for a job. It’s nice to know there are employers out there who are ready to hire me.”

The Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility has been hosting job fairs since 2016, inviting employers and service agencies from across Iowa to meet with inmates, accept resumes and even do interviews on the spot.

Cord Overton, communications director with the Iowa Department of Corrections, said job fairs over the past few years have resulted in a culture shift in correctional facilities by keeping inmates focused on landing a job and paying the bills.

“We see that in the morale of inmates and staff,” Overton said. “There’s a decrease in the number of assaults within the facility.”

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Inmate Brandon Lyman attended the job fair Thursday in the hope of applying for a few construction jobs. Lyman has completed 800 hours with the HVAC apprenticeship program.

“I like that we can see what else is out there for us when we’re out,” Lyman said.

Inmate Shain Slick got to speak with an employer who is hiring in the field he is interested in.

“This facility has helped me out a lot,” Slick said. “I’ve been in and out of prison for the last 10 years. This is my time. I’m tired of it.”

Jay Nelson, warden at the Mount Pleasant prison, said a part of its mission is to prepare inmates for their future, including connecting them with future employers.

“Anything we can do to reduce (recidivism) is a good thing,” Nelson said.

Carolyn Farley is an operations manager for IowaWORKS, which partners with the Department of Corrections to help organize job fairs in prisons across Iowa.

Farley noted the unemployment rate in Iowa is low, and employers are looking for creative solutions to fill positions.

With the Department of Corrections’ 21 apprenticeship programs available at correctional facilities, inmates are very qualified candidates, Farley said. There also are incentives for businesses that hire former inmates, including federal tax credits.

Julie Redmond, operations manager with DES Employment Group in Cedar Rapids, said her company believes in second chances. Redmond has the resources to help job candidates create resumes, work on their interview skills and be well-dressed for interviews.

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“Our office has a passion for working with incarcerated individuals,” Redmond said. “We’ve seen some really great success stories.”

Redmond said she has worked with former inmates who have started in low-paying positions and worked their way up to management and supervisory roles.

“When people come out (of correctional facilities), they have 1,000 no’s before they get that one yes. We like to be that yes and give them hope.”

Mike Kelsey, recruiting specialist with Hy-Vee, said that job fairs at correctional facilities offer great opportunities to connect potential employees to Hy-Vee stores.

“I’ve seen a lot of success in this program,” Kelsey said. “Everyone deserves the chance to prove themselves.”

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