Motivated Hall County inmates are being given the chance to end their sentences with a foot in the door of a living-wage job.
As part of the statewide push for criminal justice reform, the state has for the past few years paid counties to enroll inmates in GED and vocational training programs and then paid them again based on their number of graduates.
“One of the big pushes that the state has lately is getting inmates prepared for release,” Warden Walt Davis told the Hall County Board of Commissioners during a Monday presentation. “We know that the GED and vocational skills are two keys to hopefully eliminating recidivism when they get out.”
Hall County has the third-most-successful workforce training program in the state for inmates, resulting in payments of more than $100,000 from the Georgia Department of Corrections. That money is now being used to build a welding shop at the site of the old Hall County Correctional Institution on Barber Road, Davis said.
Lanier Technical College and Goodwill are partnering with the county to run their educational programs. The technical college provides the instructors and donated eight used welders to the county for training — the hard skills. Goodwill helps inmates with their soft skills: showing up to work on time, being professional and other routine skills.
“A good percentage of those in the correctional system do not have a high school diploma or a GED, and it’s that basic credential that opens so many doors, so many opportunities,” said Tim McDonald, a vice president of Lanier Tech. “In today’s economy, you just have to have that basic credential.”
Even further, walking out of the state prison system with welding training “makes them basically immediately employable,” McDonald added.
To house the training, county inmates have spent the past two months renovating a former, 55-year-old prison dormitory by upgrading its electrics and air handling system to accommodate six welding stalls and other equipment.
Imprisoned electricians and welders wired the building and fabricated the ventilation hoods over the stalls, Davis said during a walkthrough of the facility on Tuesday, and other inmates did general labor. Other than oversight and inspections from county employees, all of the work has been done by inmates.
He expects the work to be finished in the next month. Once it’s finished, the county could see as many as 32 to 40 inmates get training in the welding shop each year.
The warden said at any point there’s a need for 200 more welders in Hall County, citing a statistic from the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce.
One of those welders is Ronnie Rucker, 44, who has re-entered the job market while finishing his prison sentence at Hall County’s halfway house. Rucker is a welder manufacturing truck trailers, and he picked up his skillset through his family’s fencing business.
After passing through the prison system and now getting back into the workforce, he said he hoped to be able to take advantage of the county welding shop to brush up his skills.
As it stands, he won’t get the chance to use the shop – but he thinks it’s a smart investment of work for the county and of time for inmates, who will get a better shot at a normal life after prison because of the training.
“It’s good work. It’s in demand, and it pays pretty good — you can make a living with it,” Rucker said, noting that welders can start out anywhere from $15 to $25 an hour depending on their skill and training.
Demand for welders in the county is “definitely” real, Rucker said.
“The work’s there if people want it,” he said.
To be eligible, inmates serving time for low-level violent crimes, nonviolent crimes and drug offenses must be nearing the end of their sentences. Sex offenders, inmates with mental health problems or serious medical issues and those convicted of serious violent crimes aren’t eligible for the programs.
The state incentive program pairs well with Hall County’s Re-entry Accountability Court Transition program, which is open to inmates who are residents of Hall and Dawson counties.
Davis explained that the county enrolled 43 inmates into its GED program and 13 inmates into its 12-week welding school. Each graduate comes with an additional $1,000 from the state.
So far, nine inmates have earned GEDs and seven have earned welding certificates. In all, the county received $116,000 in fiscal year 2017.
“It was a very lucrative thing for us to get,” Davis told commissioners.
But reforms are still being made to the program. The state’s funding structure has made enrolling inmates, instead of graduating them, the greater incentive by giving most of the cash to counties up front. Davis said that’s being changed this year.
Participating inmates have run into hurdles finishing their training after they’ve left jail.
“The guys are real excited about getting a vocational certificate or a job skill when they’re in the facility, when we’ve got them in programming, but when they get to the transitional center they tend to want to focus on working,” Davis said.
To help boost graduate numbers and help more prisoners be ready to start a job once they’ve finished their sentences, the county is pushing more training into the jail system itself.
And that’s why it’s building the welding shop.
“They’re actually going to get their certificates before they get to transition. When they walk out the door, they’re going to be employable with a job skill in Hall County,” Davis said.