3 lessons from a successful reentry initative

The story of a successful South Carolina program and the lessons it can teach


By Luke Whyte

It has been argued that the strongest quality of great leaders isn’t their capacity to manage others’ growth directly, but their ability to connect people with complementary skills and needs; enabling them to manage their own growth.

Correctional professionals manage inmates’ growth through discipline and treatment. Yet with retracting budgets and overburdened parole systems, leaders skilled in connecting offenders to people and organizations that enable them to mange their own growth outside of custody are becoming paramount. So how can we learn to hone these increasingly important skills?

(AP photo)
(AP photo)

In this article, we’ll take a look at a program that grew out of Charleston County, South Carolina called the Trident Area Welding Initiative. Through the collaboration of six local organizations (both private and public), this initiative was able to successfully train and employ 63 inmates as skilled welders in a high-demand industry at negligible cost to the detention facility and of great benefit to the employer.

Paul L. Connerty is the executive director of the Trident Workforce Investment Board (TWIB), which coordinated the program, and one of a handful of leaders that brought the welding initiative to life. CorrectionsOne sat down with him to discuss the process and to see what lessons it can teach.

Lesson I: Find a demand that ex-offenders can supply
Charleston, South Carolina is home to a large manufacturing economy supported by the defense industry. In 2005, just before the birth of the welding initiative, Connerty and other workforce and economic development professionals watched as a hole opened in the local economy.

“Charleston had a great demand for welders but limited capacity for training,” Connerty said. Thus, some companies had resorted to hiring workers from outside of the community. “There really was no training capacity locally,” he said.

Connerty, along with the other program innovators like Chief Deputy Mitch Lucas at the Charleston County Detention Center, saw this gap in the economy, looked at the local inmate population and thought, “these inmates would make great welders.”

And just like that, the seeds were planted.

Connerty gives this advice to others looking to find similar local demand that ex-offenders can fulfill. “You’ve got to be realistic and look at the industries that are going to be receptive to this type of population,” Connerty said.

“You’ve got to look closely for regional opportunities,” he added, citing opportunities like construction and the growing “green” industry as possible options.

Look for connections others have failed to make. Even if you’re not sure about a project’s potential, it never hurts to do some research.

Lesson II: Connect private and public needs and skills
Training ex-offenders to become local welders was a great idea. But, who hasn’t had one or two great ideas for improving corrections during their career? The real question is finding the time and money to bring these ideas to life? The secret is connecting interested parties with complementary needs — effectively enabling them to build the project.

In this scenario, Connerty and other project partners started with a connection to the Charleston County Detention Center.

“Chief Lucas has been a great advocate for these programs since the beginning,” he said.

Lucas and his team got to work assessing inmate interest and developing a process for selecting eligible trainees; gauging work ethic, surveying evidenced recidivism, etc.

TWIB approached Trident Technical College (TTC), which, seeing the interest on the Detention Center’s end, agreed to develop a specialized curriculum to train the inmates and to provide career counseling.

The biggest task, however, was finding a way to guarantee employment opportunities after the training was complete. For this, TWIB turned to the private sector.

One of the largest employers of welders in the Charleston area at the time was a company called Force Protection, Inc. However, for a number of reasons, they were unable to support the welding initiative. What was needed instead was a younger, hungrier company; a business willing to take a couple risks. TWIB found that in Protected Vehicles, Inc.

“Protected Vehicles was a start-up that desperately needed trained welders,” Connerty said. When the training program partners approached them, they were happy to provide a training facility, training supplies, and the promise of well-paid employment after completion of the program.

Amid the budding excitement, the South Carolina Employment Security Commission came on board to help prepare inmates for the job and conduct eligibility screenings with the Sheriff’s Office. And readySC, a job training program that supports South Carolina’s technical colleges, agreed to provide welding booths and evening classes to accommodate inmates released early.

Lesson III: Make a goal and don’t be afraid to trust it
When the program actually began, Connerty said, some people were a little skeptical.

The first class had around 15 people in it. The Detention Center provided transport, moving the inmates from the facility to Protected Vehicles, Inc.’s workshop where the TTC trainers waited.

“Initially, we had an armed guard with the inmates the whole time,” Connerty said. “But, after the first class, (the trainers) didn’t feel they needed that for 8-hours a day.

“A trust relationship started to develop.”

In total, 63 inmates graduated from the initial program. They all were hired by the company. More than $161,000 in arrears child support was repaid.

Talking to Connerty about that first graduation ceremony, it’s obvious the experience affected him.

“Many of these folks who came out of that environment had never before celebrated a success,” he said. “That was an amazing thing to see.”

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