For some people, the worst day of their lives is the day they go to jail.
But for some inmates in Florida’s Orange County Correctional Department, it can actually become a positively life-altering experience.
The six-week program offers each class of 15-20 inmates to lay the foundation of their construction career with key, in-demand trade skills, along with certifications from the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER), Maintenance of Traffic, First Aid/CPR and OSHA10. The program, which began in March 2016, has graduated 13 classes thus far, equalling 242 students. Of the graduates, 67% have secured full-time employment (162) with 85% of those (138) in the construction industry.
We had a chance to talk with the 2019 #Catalyst4Change award winner, Robert Barnett about his agency’s life-changing program that provides inmates construction skills and a chance at a new career — and a whole new lease on life.
Justice Clearinghouse (JCH) Editors: What gave you the idea for this program? What was your inspiration?
The program wasn’t my idea, but as soon as I was included in the process to work toward bringing it to Orange County (FL) Corrections Department (OCCD), I knew it could potentially be a game-changer. A large majority of inmates released from correctional facilities have the same negative belief that adequate sustainable employment can’t be obtained due to an extensive criminal background. We quickly learned that the majority of construction companies are extremely background tolerant. Furthermore, at the time of implementation, and even still today, the demand for construction laborer jobs was/is extremely high. So essentially, the inspiration was the chance to present the inmates with a real opportunity to change their lives. Being that we now have multiple graduates that are making more money than the average college graduate, and that many of them have spent a large portion of their life in a correctional setting, I would say we definitely accomplished our goal.
A large majority of inmates released from correctional facilities
have the same negative belief that adequate sustainable employment can’t be obtained
due to an extensive criminal background.
We quickly learned that the majority of construction companies are extremely background tolerant.
JCH Editors: Why did you focus on construction? Could a similar program be done for other trades or professions?
According to the Craft Labor Market Analyzer (CLMA), the demand for craft laborers in the state of Florida through September 2022 is 231,311. At the start of the program, the Ultimate I-4 project was beginning and the project was anticipated to take 5+ years and cost nearly 2.3 billion dollars. Due to the proximity of the road construction project in relation to the return address of many of the inmates, combined with the massive need for workforce, it was anticipated that this construction venture alone would be enough to sustain the program while other construction partner relationships were formed. There are currently other craft positions in high demand such as carpenter, mason, and heavy equipment operator that have the opportunity to be successful jail programs in the future if implemented and planned correctly.
JCH Editors: What were the biggest barriers or roadblocks that you had to overcome in this process?
The biggest barrier was getting the jail to sign off on allowing us to bring sharp tools into the jail such as saw-blades, nails, screws, etc. A very extensive inventory process was created to assure accuracy with inventory. The jail also purchased an advanced body scanner similar to the type used in airports. To this date, we have not had a single issue with tools missing, or even something as tiny as a nail being confiscated during the strip search process.
Another barrier was gaining the inmates’ trust. We were essentially selling dreams of a better life, which meant that successful follow through on our part was a must. After the completion of our first two graduating classes, not only were the released inmates obtaining a higher starting pay than anticipated, but the word also spread through the jail pretty quickly that the suggested opportunity was genuine, and the program began recruiting for itself. Looking back, I believe if we had failed with employment in the beginning, the program would never be where it is today, and probably not even exist at all.
We were essentially selling dreams of a better life,
which meant that successful follow through on our part was a must.
JCH Editors: What have been some of the most impactful results? What results have surprised you?
How quickly some of the students have received promotions and the average starting pay being so high. We have a graduate who served 13 years in prison before coming to us, he is now an associate engineer making a salary of $60,000k+. We have another graduate who went from nearly being deported from the United States to later starting with a construction company making $15/hr; 18 months later he is now making $22/hr plus $500 a month for housing and he is averaging 70 hours per week. We have a female graduate that started under $16/hr and 12 months later she is making $26/hr. We have multiple graduates that are now site leads and/or team leaders. We have another graduate that is now the lead electrician for his company. I could go on-and-on, but the impact has honestly been larger than we anticipated.
JCH Editors: Are you looking to expand your program? Or help other jurisdictions implement similar programs?
Yes. We speak at national conferences as often as possible, because we would love to see other agencies implement something similar. Our whole team here believes in genuinely helping someone have a legitimate second chance, so expanding to help others would be the quintessential cherry on top. We are currently in the planning process of implementing a masonry program. It would be similar to the construction program, but would have an additional apprenticeship based educational part to it upon release.
There aren’t many greater feelings
than genuinely knowing you helped change a person’s entire life.
JCH Editors: What drew you to this line of work? And what keeps you motivated, given all that you both see in the course of your career?
Honestly, luck. I completed my undergraduate degree from the University of Central Florida right in the middle of an economic disaster that caused gaining employment after college to be extremely challenging. Due to lack of employment, I went to graduate school as a method to delay my student loans. While in graduate school, I interned with the Orange County Corrections Department Inmate Programs Unit and fell in love with a field I didn’t even know existed.
The motivation comes predominately through phone calls and emails from released graduates that are now buying houses, having babies, taking vacations etc. There aren’t many greater feelings than genuinely knowing you helped change a person’s entire life.
Here’s a message from a student after he received his job offer to move his family to North Dakota and make $22/hr with a guarantee of between 60-70 hours per week.
“This is just building on the foundation that you all laid out for me; everyday of my life I get up and go to work and do the right thing, and this is because I can hear each one of you in my head repeating the same positive things over and over. We are so grateful (his family) that I went to jail as crazy as it sounds. You people are angels and don’t ever stop doing what you are doing. Show my offer letter around, show it to the class, I hope that it serves as inspiration not only for the students but also for the staff to keep on working hard. I leave tomorrow and yes our plans are to come back in a few years. I’ll keep sending you pictures once I start working. Thank you again everyone.”
Click Here to Learn More about the cFive Catalyst4Change Program.
Click Here to Watch a Recording of Rober Barnett’s Webinar, Real Re-Entry, Real Impact, Real Money, that Overviews His Program.