How an HVAC program is reducing recidivism and saving energy in Virginia

The HVAC vocational program implemented by VADOC not only provides inmates with marketable skills, but optimizes building performance and reduces energy costs


By Phillip Lowery

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, at least 95 percent of state prisoners will be released to their communities at some point. Unfortunately, many offenders end up returning to prison because they are unprepared to reenter society.

To disrupt this cycle, some correctional facilities have developed vocational programs for inmates to help provide them with the skills necessary to gain employment upon their release. These programs can be beneficial for both the correctional facility and the state. By having inmates apply the skills learned through the vocational program to the workforce, the state gains support for initiatives that otherwise might have been put on hold. Inmates that have completed such programs have greater success obtaining jobs, which positively impacts recidivism rates.

There is a strong connection between an offender’s education level and the likelihood they will return to a correctional facility. (Photo/Johnson Controls)
There is a strong connection between an offender’s education level and the likelihood they will return to a correctional facility. (Photo/Johnson Controls)

With an estimated 115,000 new heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) workers needed by 2022, some correctional facilities have implemented HVAC vocational programs to teach inmates the skills needed for careers as service mechanics, controls technicians and maintenance specialists. The programs help to fill the current skilled labor shortage as the HVAC industry is facing increasing pressure to find qualified workers to join the field as much of the current workforce is retiring.

Vocational Program Leads to Success

One example is the Green HVAC Vocational Program developed by Johnson Controls, which teaches inmates technician training in learning labs equipped with HVAC equipment and controls.

The program evaluates local job markets and apprenticeship programs near correctional facilities to customize a program that will help inmates gain employment upon their release. Participating facilities have created dedicated HVAC labs outfitted with equipment, instructors, desks and white boards, making them resemble a learning lab that can be found in today’s classrooms.

Both short- and long-term offenders are eligible to take part in the program. Short-term offenders can use the skills learned upon their release to obtain a job, while long-term offenders can help maintain HVAC systems within the correctional facilities. The long-term offenders also have the ability to take over maintenance positions, ultimately saving departments money and filling positions that are otherwise under-staffed.

Virginia HVAC Program Seeing Results

The Green HVAC Vocational Program has seen significant success, particularly in Virginia.

In 2012, the Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC) implemented the program at Indian Creek Correctional Center in Chesapeake. Broken up into three parts, the program is led by experienced instructors in a state-of-the-art facility. The first portion of the course gives inmates the opportunity to learn HVAC basics and allows the students to obtain several certifications. The second portion emphasizes HVAC service, installation and maintenance and the third is focused on computerized environmental control.

The results of the program in Virginia have been encouraging. The Virginia Department of Corrections achieved 22.8% in recidivism – the lowest recidivism rate in state history, and among the lowest in the nation. Moreover, in 2016, the state reported that more than 50 offenders graduated from the training program, with more than 35 employed upon release from a correctional facility.

Edward Higgins is one graduate who successfully completed the program and obtained a job in the industry. He believes it’s important for these types of vocational programs to be provided.

“The biggest inhibitor for recidivism is education. The more you can educate somebody, the less likely they are to return to prison,” Higgins said. He credits the program for providing him with the technical knowledge needed to succeed in his current role as a lead service technician and helping him reclaim his life.

Energy Savings Help Fund Program

In addition to providing inmates with marketable skills, the program is also helping VADOC optimize building performance and reduce energy costs and is a part of the department’s wider efforts to support energy, water and operational efficiency.

In 2009, the Virginia government connected its energy efficiency and inmate reentry goals by using savings generated from an energy performance contract to fund the cost of the Green HVAC Vocational Program.

Inmate vocational training programs are helping to fill labor shortages in the HVAC industry. (Photo/Johnson Controls)
Inmate vocational training programs are helping to fill labor shortages in the HVAC industry. (Photo/Johnson Controls)

The development of the lab and cost of ongoing training are offset by the energy and operational savings. For every offender who successfully re-enters society and does not return, the commonwealth of Virginia avoids annual incarceration costs of approximately $25,000.

Fighting Crime Through Education

Findings show there is a strong connection between an offender’s education level and the likelihood that they will return to a correctional facility. In fact, research found that inmates who participate in vocational programs have 43% lower odds of returning to prison than those who don’t.

The Green HVAC Vocational Program is a leading example of a program aimed at educating offenders and preparing them for the workforce. Its success in Virginia has led other departments of corrections, including Louisiana, to implement the program with the goal of reducing recidivism.

For more information, visit https://www.johnsoncontrols.com/.


About the author
Phillip Lowery is director of State Government, Performance Infrastructure™, Johnson Controls.

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