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Life after incarceration: prisoner employment program teaches job and life skills.

Most of the men who work for Greg Houck have never had a straight 9 to 5 job. "A lot of these guys are my age (38) or older and have very little or no work experience," said Houck, production manager II for the Wood Furniture Division of the Department of Corrections Prisoner Employment Program at Alaska Spring Creek Correctional Center near Seward. "We have a lot of people who have never had a job besides being a drug dealer, robber or car thief."

The Wood Furniture Division is one of three employment-training industries offered through the Prisoner Employment Program, which replaced the Alaska Correctional Industries program. The new structure includes stand-alone employment training programs for garment manufacturing at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center, a commercial laundry at Lemon Creek Correctional Center and a wood-furniture shop at Spring Creek.

"The focus is on that basics such as getting to work on time on your own, planning other aspects of your life around your work, getting along with others, taking responsibility for your actions, realizing how your actions in one part of your life affect other parts," Houck said. "When a person has those skills, they will be much more likely to be able to hold a steady job, woodworking or not."

Jolund Luther, administrative officer with the Prisoner Employment Program, said the programs focus on teaching prisoners employability skills, not on teaching a trade they can continue when they are released.

"We're giving them a chance to see how a business functions on the outside," he said of the approximate 30 prisoners who are employed in the wood furniture division.

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Houck said some of the hardest workers he's had in the wood shop struggled with the most rudimentary of work skills. "A new tool comes in and right away they put their name on it and then they're starting fights if anyone else tries to use it."

The jobs also are a way for people serving time to stay current on debts such as child support, Luther said. Prisoners also must stay out of trouble to be eligible to work in the wood shop, he said.

Clif Simons, probation officer III at Spring Creek Correctional Center,

said the value of the Prisoner Employment Program extends beyond the dozens of men and women it employs.

"We teach them skills that they can pass on to their children," he said. "The ultimate goal of what we do is to try to build better people."

Luther said the vast majority of incarcerated people will serve their terms and be returned to society as neighbors and coworkers. A person who keeps a job in the industries for five, six, seven years is better prepared for success on the outside than someone who hasn't had a job, he said.

AND THEY MAKE WOOD FURNITURE

Aside from teaching employability skills, the Wood Furniture Division also makes solid wood furniture, Houck said.

"We don't bring in any wood parts," he said. "If it's made of wood, we start with raw lumber and make it."

The shop offers a full line of handmade wooden desks, tables, conference tables, bookshelves, office systems and ergonomic chairs.

Luther said the state has been the industry's primary customer. "Everywhere we go we see offices full of our furniture."

There is a built-in downside to a business that makes solid wood furniture designed to last for years: Stuff's not wearing out, Luther said.

To maintain its self-supporting status and to expand its training opportunities, he said he's working to expand the product line.

"We want to market ourselves more toward hotels, motels and bed and breakfasts that need custom work," he said. "We can custom build just about anything a customer would like."

The industry has seen some success providing libraries around the state with CD racks, bookshelves and other furniture, Luther said.

It also has contracts to provide bunk beds and dressers for the Alaska State Trooper Academy, University of Alaska and McLaughlin Youth Center. And a couple of Seward businesses also have hired the wood shop to build custom front desk areas, Luther said.

Though Alaska's prison industries programs have faced scrutiny for competing with private business, he said the program's goal is to teach prisoners the employability skills necessary to get and keep a job in the real world.
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Comment:Life after incarceration: prisoner employment program teaches job and life skills.(JOBS)
Author:Resz, Heather A.
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Sep 1, 2008
Words:720
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