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South Dakota prison job fair connects inmates to opportunities

A pilot program aimed at reducing recidivism introduces inmates to potential employers at Mike Durfee State Prison in South Dakota. Prison officials hope the program will help inmates find jobs after their release and away from paths that lead back to prison. 

Randy Dockendorf/Yankton Press & Dakotan/AP
Lucas Thoelke (l.) and Chad Elkins pose for a picture during a job fair at Mike Durfee State Prison in Springfield, S.D., on Oct. 15. Both men have completed vocational training while in prison, and are exploring employment opportunities after they are released.

As inmates at Mike Durfee State Prison, Chad Elkins and Lucas Thoelke know they'll be looking for a job after their release.

But on a recent Monday, the employers and jobs came looking for them.

Around 325 inmates met with 15 employers at the medium-security prison's job fair, according to MDSP workforce development instructor Monica Wepking.

"This is part of a pilot program aimed at reducing recidivism," she said, referring to the rate of inmates who return to the prison.

The inmates were taking advantage of the job opportunities and their new life after prison.

Mr. Thoelke plans to return to his hometown of Sioux Falls after his release.

"I have a support system and family back there," he said. "I do have some family in Arizona, but I think it's easier to stay here and get a job in welding."

On the other hand, Mr. Elkins doesn't plan to return to Rapid City. Instead, he and his wife plan to reside in Yankton.

"I want a new environment," he said. "I want a good job that pays well and a career worth pursuing."

Both men have completed the MDSP welding program. Thoelke has received American Welding Society (AWS) certification, while Elkins can receive the certification shortly after his release, the Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan reported.

The two inmates expressed optimism about their job prospects after attending the career fair. They were handed applications, and the starting hourly wages ran in the $18-21 range.

"[The employers] greeted us with open arms," Elkins said of the enthusiastic welcome provided by the job fair participants.

The job fair marked the second such event for the prison. MDSP hosted its initial fair last April, and its success led to the Oct. 15 event.

Thoelke noted this job fair has come closer to his release date, adding to its importance for his future.

"I could be out in January, which is only three months away," he said. "I'm getting more applications and more attention."

For Thoelke, getting a job ahead of his release would be more than a relief. It would provide him with an important springboard for securing all the other things he will need on the outside, such as housing.

"I want to get a job and make as much money as I can," he said.

A job on the outside provides a powerful tool in avoiding a return to prison, Elkins said.

"A lot of people get out of prison, and they end up on the streets," he said. "They come back to prison because they can't find a job. Without a job, you're set up to fail."

Thoelke was already filling out applications at the recent fair.

"I had one business tell me that, if I get out January 28, to give them a call," he said. "That's a huge confidence builder."

In turn, Thoelke encouraged others to have confidence in the inmates.

"We've made mistakes, but we've learned from those mistakes," he said. "Don't judge us on our past. Give us a chance, and you may find we are some of the best and hardest-working employees you've got."

Ms. Wepking said she was pleased with the turnout of both inmates and businesses. The numbers were consistent with the first job fair last April, which was attended by 18 businesses.

"Most of the inmates attending [the recent] job fair were within 30 days of release," she said. "They were required to sign up ahead of time for the fair and were divided into three shifts of about 45 minutes each."

At one table, Masaba human resources manager Wendy Sommervold spoke excitedly about her experience at the job fair. For her, the event provided an opportunity to fill slots at the Vermillion business, which produces mining equipment, among other things.

Many businesses are facing a workforce shortage, and the inmates can provide valuable skilled workers, she noted.

"This is my first time at the job fair, and the reception I received [from the inmates] has been wonderful," she said. "The inmates seemed very eager and interested in our positions. They were so engaged and asked a lot of questions about the jobs, the wages, the people, and the environment."

How serious was Ms. Sommervold about hiring inmates upon their release?

"You be sure to call us!" she shouted out to one departing inmate, who flashed a smile and held up the company's materials and application forms.

The recent job fair tied in with the prison's vocational programs, according to MDSP associate wardens Alex Reyes and Rebecca Schieffer.

Mr. Reyes noted the job fairs are geared toward prisoners nearing their release date, but other inmates are allowed to participate if they are part of the vocational programs.

"We like to give them the opportunity [to interview] after they have earned their certificate in programs like construction technology, welding, and automotive," he said. "When we send out the notice [about the job fair], we let the employers know what skill sets the inmates have."

The job fair provides inmates with an important connection to employers for life outside of prison, Reyes said.

"It's an incredibly important part of our goal of getting them back into society," he said. "We provide programming and education to rehabilitate the inmates. This job fair gives them extra [resources] to get them acquainted with the outside – the society they will be joining and a workforce that will be a very important part of their lives."

Ms. Schieffer pointed to the "soft skills" that inmates acquire by attending the fair.

"You have guys with limited job experience, and this [fair] provides valuable interview skills," she said. "The more you can interview, the better you can get at it."

In addition, the inmates receive assistance with creating resumes and filling out job applications, Schieffer said.

In that respect, the job fair was for real, she added.

"This is not a mock exercise," she said. "Some of these [inmates] can be hired. These employers are looking to hire. If something works out and inmates can get a job, it's the best thing we can do."

Schieffer admitted MDSP officials weren't sure what to expect when they launched the job fairs.

"The first one was a little uncharted territory. We didn't know if we would have a good turnout of employers at the fair, and we did. We didn't know for sure if the inmates were willing to participate, but we had a lot of them," she said.

Some new employers showed up at the recent job fair, Schieffer said.

"The word is getting around. Monica [Wepking] gets a healthy number of different employers, not just from Yankton but from places like Huron and Sioux Falls," she said. "We have a wide variety of businesses, and we also have the Department of Labor and the Veterans Administration."

Schieffer thinks the number of participants can grow even more for future job fairs.

"That's true especially if we can get more employers from a wider distance," she said. "If an inmate plans to go to Rapid City after his release and there aren't any Rapid City employers here, why would that inmate attend? But if you have a good variety of employers, I think it might help with getting more inmates to attend the job fair and apply for jobs."

Thoelke saw the job fair as an encouraging sign for inmates.

"When you're close to getting out [of prison], you're nervous about whether you are going to find a job. Being a felon can make it that much harder," he said. "But then you have all these businesses show up and give us applications. They also gave us words of hope and encouragement, telling us that we can contact them when we get out and we're almost guaranteed an interview."

Elkins offers a word of thanks to MDSP for the vocational training and job fair. Inmates completing the programs can receive a reduction in their sentences, he added.

"This gives us a goal when we get out of prison," he said. "It shows we can make something of ourselves rather than go down the same road as before."

This story was reported by the Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan and distributed by The Associated Press. 

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