Ex-cons get green work as first step to new life

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Capital News Service
LANSING–Traverse City is among the communities in the country exploring green job initiatives as an opportunity for ex-prisoners to rebuild their lives.
Programs such as Michigan Prisoner ReEntry Initiative (MPRI), a statewide effort led by the Department of Corrections that does job placement for former prisoners, provide a pathway out of the incarceration cycle for an increasing number of former prisoners.
Growing Connections, a project of MPRI’s Northwest, is one initiative bringing change to the lives of ex-inmates and the community, according to Kirt Baab, MPRI’s Northwest region’s community coordinator.
Mary Ann Hendricks, who supervised a project last summer at the community-based Grow Benzie, a gardening project in Frankfort, said she would work again with Growing Connections if she had the chance.
She managed a crew of former inmates on a project to reorganize and clean the farmstead’s greenhouses, getting them ready for the planting season.  The crew also rebuilt a stairway on a steep slope and filled the slope with stones to prevent further soil erosion that was damaging the greenhouses.
“I wasn’t so sure at first — I expected to see a lot of personality problems,” she said.  “But when I saw what the crew had done in a couple hours, I was like ‘I can’t believe this.’”
Another major project was landscaping the 3.7 acres where the farmstead is situated.
Jane Sage, operations manager of Northwest Michigan Works! said the number of former prisoners returning to prison within the first 24 months has been greatly reduced since MPRI started.
Before the Michigan Prisoner ReEntry Initiative was launched, about 1 in 2 parolees returned to prison within three years. That rate has improved to about 1 in 3, according to Chris Andrews, a communications consultant for MPRI.
MPRI works closely with other agencies, including Michigan Works! and regional economic development groups, to determine the kinds of training needed in the job market, according to Sage.
Another successful project last summer was at the Little Traverse Conservancy in Emmet County.
“The crew members repaired decks, cleared land and removed unwanted buildings from the property,” said Baab.
Doug Fuller, director of stewardship at the conservancy said an associate referred him to MPRI.  After giving a description of the work needed, the program assigned a three-member crew to help with four projects at a value Fuller said could have cost about $10,000.
Because nonprofit organizations like Grow Benzie and the Little Traverse Conservancy aren’t expected to pay for such services, the MPRI uses federal funds to pay participants minimum wage.  The initiative has also provided wage subsidies as an incentive for employers to hire ex-felons.
Although such jobs are seasonal and last only a short period, they help former prisoners gain work experience, earn income and get work references as they apply for longer-term jobs, according to Baab.
Over the past few years, MPRI has diversified its range of job skills training to include light-duty construction, welding and hospitality.
“Unfortunately, most of these jobs are at the entry level but at least they give our returning citizens a start into employment and a chance to gain the trust of the community,” Baab said.
Grow Benzie, which distributes its fresh vegetables to Benzie County school districts, said it hopes to work again with Growing Connections.
“They are just normal people who have made mistakes in life,” Hendricks said.
In fact, Grow Benzie is already in contact with a summer crew member and hopes to hire him full time when it has more greenhouses set up, according to Hendricks.
In the future, Hendricks said she would like help from Growing Connections to install an irrigation system at the farmstead.
“I would give them a 10 on a scale of 10,” she said.  “Everything they did was so professional.”
© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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