Chautauqua County Jail officials held the final day of their Offender Workforce Development Specialist training program at Peek'n Peak on Thursday. Three groups made up of a total of 29 participants, including 16 members from different probation departments, were in attendance to present the culmination of their studies that took place during the 180-hour training program which included 40 hours of classwork, 80 hours of practicum and countless amounts of presentations and homework.
The Offender Workforce Development Specialist Program was developed by the National Institute of Corrections along with the National Career Development Association. The National Institute of Corrections was looking for a way to reduce recidivism, where inmates come back to prison.
They wanted to be able to stop that "revolving door" that presents itself in many cases once inmates experience the corrections system.
"One thing that they found can aid in that is employment," said Capt. Patrick Johnson, warden of the Chautauqua County Jail. "There weren't many programs in place to teach offenders how to think about careers rather than just jobs. With this program, they learn how to obtain a career and how to retain a career so that they don't have to resort to crime as a means of support or just out of habit.
Johnson continued, "They went together and developed this huge curriculum. It's a 180-hour course. There are three weeks of instruction in a classroom setting separated by six weeks of practicum and keeping journals so that the trainees can practice it and do further work. It lets them take theory into practice and work on their skills."
The first week of classroom training was held in March at JCC, the second week was held in May, also at JCC, and the third week culminated on Thursday with the group presentations.
The trainees were responsible for developing a program that they could take into the community or take back into the workplace that will benefit an agency, the community, and more than anything else, benefit the offenders.
READY, SET, WORK
Linda Shields, probation director, wanted to use this program as a way to help her department to initiate the "Ready, Set, Work" program, which is a training program for offenders on probation which takes the information that they've learned and gives it to the offenders to help them find and retain jobs.
"A lot of the people that we deal with don't have the skills, so we want to give them those skills to help them be in a better position," said Shields. "We want to help them overcome barriers to become gainfully employed. The "Ready, Set, Work" program has 10 different modules that will be taught to clients including interview skills, how to fill out applications, budgeting and spending, employer expectations, barriers to employment, job searching, job retention and several others."
She continued, "Compliance with probation restrictions doesn't change behavior, giving them (the inmates) skills and helping to change the way that they think does."
Cattaraugus County has already begun to implement the "Ready, Set, Work" program and thusfar has seen a very good success rate for their inmates finding and retaining jobs post-release, which reduces the caseload for their parole officers. Albany County, where the program was first implemented, has seen 85 percent of the offenders that went through the program find and retain jobs.
Another group that presented on Thursday, made up of parole officers from Chautauqua and Cattaraugus County, corrections officers from Chautauqua County and one person from the Chautauqua County Mental Health worked on a form that each department can use to reduce duplications called the Universal Intake Form.
"What's frustrating for an offender is that when you go from one agency to another, you get asked a lot of the same questions and it's just one form after another."
The Universal Intake and Release form will help correctional facilities avoid the SILO effect, avoid duplication of services, keep lines of communication open between different agencies and promote a diversity of expertise, along with reducing the amount of natural resources wasted. Other benefits of the Universal Intake and Release form include minimized repetition of paperwork, saving departments and taxpayers money and improving the accessibility of information on services available to offenders.
The third group that presented findings on Thursday, made up of United States parole officers from Buffalo, two Erie County jail administrators and parole officers and corrections officers from Chautauqua County, is looking to bring Offender Workforce Development Specialist training into Erie County. The Chautauqua County Jail offered training to members from Erie County last year, so there are already community links that can help to strengthen the program in the future.
In 2009, the Chautauqua County Jail was the only county jail in the country accepted for the training program, which at that point was generally reserved for federal facilities.
"That was a feather in our hats," said Johnson. "The training was very intense and they gave us good direction. We then had to duplicate it in Chautauqua County as a part of our project. They gave us $25,000 to conduct the training, and we were able to do it once in 2011 and again this year. We will have trained 56 people in Offender Workforce Development and we may be able to host another one-week training again for other counties in Western New York that are asking about the possibilities after seeing the benefits we have in our county."
Johnson continued, "What's come from all of this is that now we have a much more formal transition team at the jail and we've been able to develop the Chautauqua County re-entry task force. As of Sept. 9, 2011, we've transitioned 85 inmates out of the jail through this program and only five have returned back to the jail. We can't transition everyone since a lot of our inmates get out before they have the chance to go through the training. For any of the ones that we do have release dates for though, we can begin this process of training them for future success."
In addition to the training programs, the Chautauqua County Jail recently added certificate programs in janitorial services, building maintenance, groundskeeping, hospitality, OSHA safety, blueprint reading, welding theory and also offers GED and adult education classes. For the blueprint reading classes, Blackstone sends the jail real samples of the products that they produce along with the blueprints so the inmates have a chance to hold them in their hands and see what the blueprints actually translate to.
"We want to keep them busy and give them hope," said Johnson. "These opportunities create hope for them. The jail has to be a tool for public safety by trying to change people's lives. We want to use the jail to make the community a safer, better place. If the inmates are going to be coming back to the community and we can give them skills to let them come back as productive members, then we've done our jobs."
According to Dale Cornell, a corrections officer at the Chautauqua County Jail, the program has proven extremely beneficial for everyone involved.
"I feel that we've made a lot of contacts, not only in our county but in Erie County as well," said Cornell. "Throughout the whole process we've been working on this together, networking so that when we present this we can go to the different counties to do it." He continued, "What's nice is that this brings together parole officers, corrections officers, mental health professionals, administrators and teachers so we get a wide spectrum of viewpoints on the subjects. We're doing all of this to help inmates have the chance at a running start when they're released."
According to Johnson the educational programs and mental health plans that they are working to institute in the jail are extremely important to the welfare of the inmates and their possibilities for success in the future outside of the jail.
"History has shown that using the jail as a warehouse for criminals is ineffective and costly," said Johnson. "While we have them there, we should be doing something to make them better. Workforce development is one of those keys. Right now we're getting inmates out of jail and they're getting jobs, and that is huge. We're starting to track that and do follow-ups and making sure that people are staying on track."
Johnson continued, "It's a good thing that we're doing here. Jail is a thing that can cause people to be more criminal in nature, and if we don't do something with them, they come back and come back. It's very expensive now to keep people incarcerated. It costs us $100 a day per inmate, so we have to do things to reduce that cost since the jail is funded by the public. If we can do things to reduce the local inmate population, we'll be saving taxpayers some money. We're charged with trying to keep that number down, so if we can get grant money from the federal government for training like this and put programs in place to keep the jail population down, that's what we're going to do. It's what we have to do."