By VINCE BOND JR.
Capital News Service
LANSING- A little recognition can go a long way.
For many prisoners in the state, the pursuit of an education took a backseat to crime-riddled lives in the streets.
High school graduation ceremonies were replaced with court hearings, while prisoners appeared in mug shots instead of senior pictures.
Although criminals are serving time, they still can make up for years lost by earning their general equivalency diploma (GED) and learning a vocational skill, said John Cordell, a public information specialist for the Department of Corrections.
At prison graduation ceremonies, Cordell said he can see a shift in morale as inmates — many of whom have never been honored for anything — are rewarded for their efforts.
“They know they have a skill set. You can see it in their faces,” Cordell said. “It’s the first time they’ve been recognized for their success. For some, that milestone means they’re one step closer to being paroled.”
The state requires inmates to complete their GED to be eligible for parole.
At some prisons, inmates can take part in training such as plumbing apprenticeships, along with training in culinary arts and automobile mechanics.
Education is “a cornerstone to success in our society,” Cordell said. “Having a quality education in America is something that we place great importance in.”
Prisons typically use private contractors to train inmates, Cordell said.
Kirt Baab, community coordinator for the Michigan Prisoner Reentry Initiative (MPRI) in Traverse City, said that it’s vital for inmates to have job training and business connections when they reenter society.
MPRI is a statewide collaborative effort dedicated to protecting communities by ensuring that prisoners have the necessary support to succeed after release.
The program sends transition teams to inmates upon their incarceration, meeting with them to determine their needs and strengths.
Six months before an inmate’s target release date, MPRI meets with them again to develop a parole plan that includes housing and job prospects.
Around 300 parolees are released each year in Kent County, Baab said.
Statewide, nearly 11,000 are released from prison each year.
“The people who are getting paroled need to have what they need to be successful,” Baab said. “It helps people get jobs and stay in communities and live law abiding lives. It keeps people from going back to prison for committing crimes.”
According to MPRI, Michigan had the tenth-largest number of adults on parole at the end of 2007.
Todd Berger, executive director of Michigan Works! in Berrien, Cass and Van Buren Counties, said his agency handles around 400 offenders each year.
“The service it provides is important. It provides a comprehensive approach to getting them back in the community,” Berger said. “It’s a really beneficial program that reduces recidivism and keeps communities safer.”
Once inmates are released, they find that being educated is only the first step to success.
Cordell said as jobs become more difficult to obtain during the recession, some disheartened convicts who are struggling to adapt may go back to “runnin’ ‘n’ gunnin” with their old crews.
“Education alone won’t create a meaningful life in the community. It won’t keep you off drugs,” Cordell said. “We still see people fail. They may go back to a life of crime to find the type of success they’re looking for.”
© 2009, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.