Jobs agency gets grant to help inmates find work

Workforce S.W. Washington to aid 100 in county Jail

By Susan Parrish, Columbian Education Reporter

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Workforce Southwest Washington has received a $500,000 federal grant geared to help inmates in the Clark County Jail find jobs and stay out of jail after they are released.

Funded by the Department of Labor, the two-year LEAP grant is short for Linking to Employment Activities Pre-release. The grant period began July 1 and ends June 30, 2018.

Workforce Southwest Washington will use the grant money to offer a variety of services to 100 inmates at a new classroom inside the jail, said Chelsea Chunn, the organization’s director of workforce services. After being released from jail, about 50 of the inmates are expected to either get a job or begin post-secondary education, an apprenticeship or vocational training.

“It’s pretty unique to be able to bring services from our Workforce Center to inside the jail,” Chunn said.

Some of the grant money will be used to hire two new Workforce staff members. One will do soft skills training and industry-specific training. The other will be a community and resource navigator to help inmates reintegrate back into the community.

The two new staff members should be hired in the next two months, will be trained, get pre-clearance screening and should be ready to start the program at the jail in October, Chunn said.

They are taking on quite a challenge.

The recidivism rates at the county jail are sobering. One year after release from jail, 53 percent return to jail. After five years, 75 percent return to jail.

The grant is focused on equipping inmates to get off the path of recidivism — returning to jail — by getting jobs.

A pod containing beds in the Clark County Sheriff’s Office will be repurposed as a classroom for inmates and will hold 15 to 20 desks. Some of the grant money will be used to purchase computers for the classroom and to set up wireless internet.

People who are incarcerated typically are not allowed internet access. Through this grant, staff and inmates will have internet access during class time. That access will make it possible for inmates to take online GED classes and to apply for jobs online.

“Not being able to access the internet in jail is a huge barrier,” Chunn said. “Having internet access will give them the skills they need to truly compete in the regional economy.”

The training also will include help with resume writing, searching for and applying for jobs online, practicing job interview skills and more.

The grant will also make it possible for community partners to go inside the jail to provide mental health and chemical dependency services to inmates.

One of the barriers preventing former inmates from finding a job is that many with criminal records can’t renew their driver’s licenses. Chunn said her agency is working with the Department of Licensing to allow some inmates to renew driver’s licenses, and therefore, be able to drive to a job.

“Many folks when they’re released from jail go back to what’s familiar. That’s often not a good idea,” Chunn said. “They’ll be able to build their network so they have positive peer role models after they’re released.”

Clark College is a community resource for the grant, but the college won’t be offering classes inside the jail. After the participating inmates are released, they can choose various opportunities including getting a job, receiving on-the-job training, being placed in an apprenticeship or being placed in post-secondary education, including Clark College.

Workforce seems to have found a successful formula. Since July 2013, Workforce has served 100 offenders. Of those, 88 percent obtained employment.

“It’s really about a community-based, whole-person model,” Chunn said. “Once inmates are released, they’ll have a liaison who keeps working with them.”

Workforce Southwest Washington is the new name for the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council.