Ken Chapman, reentry coordinator for the Missouri Department of Corrections, opened his lunch-time seminar Friday with a persuasive determination.
"There are a lot of different things we do in our department that I don't think people recognize," he said. "Everyone in DOC has a job. What you see on TV — people just sitting around — is not correct."
While in prison, expectations are placed on convicts. First, they are expected to earn the equivalent of a high school diploma.
"It's not optional; they musts get their GED or their HiSET before they get out," Chapman added.
And they are expected to get vocational training in real-work situations.
"We have nine factories (in Missouri prisons)," he said. "We actually do make license plates."
Some Missouri companies are discovering that it is increasingly harder to find a trained and committed labor force, and Chapman urged area leaders attending the Callaway Chamber's Lunch N Learn session to consider hiring released felons. The Missouri Department of Corrections offers 36 vocational training programs in diverse labor markets including culinary arts, cosmetology, CDL driving, heavy machinery, welding and more.
"We have people getting out with apprenticeship hours," said Chapman, adding they also, in some cases, are already certified and licensed.
Chapman, of Jefferson City, said he understands certain crimes restrict where some felons can work. For example, convicted sex offenders cannot work at or near schools. And, he said he understands a reluctance to hire criminals.
But his job is to educate. For example, people have misgivings about hiring people convicted of second-degree murder. That opinion often changes once employers realize most of these felons have a low rate of becoming repeat offenders, compared to others convicted of driving while intoxicated, which has a high rate of recidivism.
"Murder two are crimes of the moment, crimes of passion," Chapman added. "It's one moment that affects them. But they don't come back. People with DUIs, the recidivism is quite a lot and they do come back."
In Missouri, convicts can learn all kinds of things.
"The road signs that you see? They are made in our prisons," he said.
Some prisoners have never had bosses or real jobs. One aim of this program, Chapman said, is to familiarize them in the fine details. What time are they expected to report to work? How do they communicate with their supervisors in a work situation? What consequences are there for slacking off?
"They have to report to work, and they have to produce," he said. "They're learning how to interact and have work discussions."
Through a program, "Pathway to Change," prisoners also learn about their triggers and why they make choices.
"We're helping prisoners process why they make certain decisions," Chapman added. "We're trying to help them and prepare them to come back into society."
Prisoners also are taught about compassion and victim impact — there are no victimless crimes, and their actions have affected other people negatively.
"We're trying to create a person who is remarkably different when they come out than when they came in," Chapman said.
Chapman was accompanied by Anne Herman, district coordinator for the DOC. She talked about other teaching moments to which prisoners are exposed.
"Our hospice programs are run by offenders," she said, adding other offenders can become tutors and teach other prisoners essential skills. "It's very humbling to see that part."
Also, many employers aren't aware they can get tax credits for hiring former prisoners.
"The amount depends on the hours that person works for you," Chapman added.
He also said there is a federal bonding program that protects employers for six months.
"If they steal anything, you can be covered," he added. "It costs you nothing. It's absolutely free."
Chapman said he'd be happy to take potential employers on tours of prison factories and educational programs to see what is being done.
"My hope and my dream today is for you to say, 'There's a work force I didn't know was there,'" he said. "We see a need for a trained work force in Callaway County and we have trained people."
Chapman can be reached at 573-522-1935 or at Ken.Chapman@doc.mo.gov.