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‘We do change’: Learning job skills in prison gave these central Pennsylvanians purpose, goals

Patriot-News - 9/3/2023

Labor Day pays tribute to the accomplishments of American workers.

For the thousands of incarcerated men and women in Pennsylvania returning to society every year, finding work — and finding purpose — is critical to success. Fully 90% of those who enter the criminal justice system will be released.

For years finding a job, let alone a career was extraordinarily difficult in the face of so many obstacles: the stigma of having done time, the onerous process of obtaining a professional license and rules against licensing qualified offenders and facing the check box for “criminal record” on a job application.

Slowly, many job-blocking rules and regulations - and in more and more cases the stigma - have slipped away.

Inmates in the state Department of Corrections system participate in training programs that can lead to family-sustaining jobs when they return to their communities in fields such as food service and fiber optics, forestry, welding and cosmetology.

Many leave prison with certificates in the building trades or licenses to practice as a professional. Some depart with college degrees in hand.

This Labor Day, PennLive presents portraits of men and women who developed skills and found their calling in prison and who have turned that knowledge into careers that bring them a paycheck and purpose.



Talk about the training that you got while incarcerated

“Operation Out Reach, where they took people coming towards the end of their sentence and put them in community work projects and we would work on a new state, local, county buildings, churches, parks.”

“I think probably what I gained the most was [from] the older gentleman that ran that crew [who] was very morally based. And he took a genuine interest in the people that were doing the work on that crew and taught us how to be better men.”

What do you think of programs that train people to find work when they get out?

“I’ve got 18 years in total. And the last trip was through Huntingdon State Correctional Institution and it was the very first place that I have been to where I felt like there was a desire to do something other than to warehouse human beings.”

“As a whole, society has this idea that you somehow go to jail and get rehabilitated. The truth of the matter is, that’s all bull---. They put you in these so-called programs and the majority of the time they’re just nonsense.”

“There should be more work-based programs that are giving people opportunities to be able to come out and make a living.”

How soon did you find a job when you got out?

“When I did get out I was only home I think less than a week and I was working full-time and it’s never stopped.”

“And it led to other opportunities as well. I became a partner in some real estate and it gave me an opportunity to live a comfortable life and have a retirement that I wouldn’t have had.”

Anything else you think people should know?

“I hope it doesn’t get lost in this article that you shouldn’t have to go to jail in order to get some kind of training that helps you to be a productive citizen.”

“Those kinds of programs should start long before the cell doors close. And that has to do with the court system, it has to do with society as a whole and if we’re ever going to become a country that has the most people incarcerated, per capita, that things are going to have to change. And it’s not going to be through locking people up or giving them more time, it’s training them to be productive citizens. You have to give them skills.”



After many incarcerations, Ameerah attended college and became a teacher’s aide at LOGOS Academy. In September 2007, after a coworker had brain surgery to remove a tumor Ameerah and the other teachers took turns preparing meals and feeding her family every evening until she was well.

Talk about the training that you got while incarcerated

“It was a long time ago, I think in Muncy. I studied cosmetology: hair, nails and feet, But didn’t finish the course before being released. I finished my cosmetology training at a school in York.

Robinson also got her teaching license in Harrisburg.

What did you think about the training that was offered?

“I encourage anyone to get whatever training they can get (when incarcerated.) It’s right there.”

Why cosmetology?

“It started as a hobby. I’ve always wanted to do cosmetology because my mom was a cosmetologist. I really wanted to do feet.”

Robinson worked in a shop in York and after three months she finally got the courage to open her own shop at the beginning of 2023.

“I’m still going through a lot. I’m open the whole year but just making cost. I’m filing for grants, paying taxes.”



So tell me about your training program.

“I was at SCI Huntingdon. It was a barber school program I started in 2018 and I studied there off and on with different instructors. We didn’t have a set instructor. So when we finally got a set instructor classes were going and COVID hit. So I got stuck without taking my test for a while.

“I was getting released this year and was pushing for my test. Pushing, pushing for my test and I finally got it, last year, October 2022. Ever since then, I’ve studied in the barbershop, I’ve cut staff members, I’ve cut the majority of the prison.”

What’s your goal?

“My goal is to end up owning my own barber shop. Not just one barber shop but a couple of them. To leave something for my kids so they have somewhere to be, a safe haven.”

Vargas has seven children, two are adults and five still live at home.

“I’m actually now working on my barber manager license so that I can be a manager at a barber shop.”

Were there multiple choices for classes you could take while in prison?

“There were other choices but there wasn’t much to pick from at the jail I was at. My thing was I was trying to follow in the family business. I have a lot of family members and a lot of friends who cut hair. I wanted to get involved with what they had going on. What they were doing.”

Anything you would want people to know about the program?

“Take advantage of it. You coming from the streets like I did, gang banging, drug dealing, getting into a lot of dumb stuff, take advantage of whatever programs you can in there (prison) because at the end of the day, it can turn around on you and it can actually help.

I’m not saying I’m a full success story, but I am trying to become one. And I feel like so far I’m doing good.”



Talk about the training that you got while incarcerated

“I left with a diploma in paralegal which I took through correspondence, an associate degree in business management which I got through the Pell Grants Second Chance program, through Lehigh/Carbon Community College and I left with a Peer Support certification.

Every other program the Department of Corrections had to offer I pretty much did. Carpentry, custodial maintenance. I collected certificates like baseball cards. That’s the way I looked at it. I thought the shotgun approach, the more skills you have the more likely you are to get hired out here. But I would say I relied more on my business degree more than anything.”

How long did it take you to get a job once you got out?

“When I first came out I went to a distribution center. But while I was incarcerated, when I was going through my college program a professor made us come up with a business plan. So I came up with this theoretical business plan for reentry for an organization called ‘Tomorrow’s Neighbors.’ Which means -today’s prisoners are tomorrow’s neighbors.

And it was mirrored off the peer support program at the DOC. A mentorship program, so that individuals who had come home and were successful could mentor people coming freshly out of prison.

Prior to my release I actually incorporated Tomorrow’s Neighbors as a non-profit. So when I came home I knew I wanted to do that, but I also had to pay the bills.”

How old is Tomorrow’s Neighbors?

“I got released in July 2020, so about three years since I’ve been out.”

You mentioned you got a grant?

“After we got out we started with just the peer mentorship and that went really well. And then an opportunity came in Cumberland County where they had [American Rescue Plan Act] funding, which is COVID money, that they opened up to non-profits and municipalities. At the encouragement of some people in the county, we put in a grant application and we got a grant. The Cumberland House is funded for five years through that grant.”

Were there a lot of training options while you were incarcerated?

“Unfortunately, because I served 24 years, a lot of the educational opportunities aren’t available until you’re ready to go home. So you can kind of sit stagnant for many years in prison and then at the end it’s kind of a scurry to get certifications. But I was very proactive.

What I’m doing is trying to pave a path for the lifers. I want to show that people can come out, they can do well if they’re given the skills.”

What else do you think people should know about prison training?

“We know that education is the only thing that works. We know statistically that if you participate in education your recidivism drops. Just setting foot in a class in prison, without getting a degree, your recidivism drops by 19%. If you get a Doctorate or Masters degree you have zero chance of going back to prison.

So if we know it works we should invest in it.

75% of offenders go back within three years. Half of them within the first year. So once you make three years your chances of recidivism are less than 5%. So what we want to do at Tomorrow’s Neighbors is flip that number with only 25% going back and 75% staying out. And then we’ll work to get that 25% out.

I would say education works. That it’s not coddling inmates to give them an opportunity to change their lives. It benefits society as much as it does the individual. And it’s cheaper to invest in education because it costs $60,000 a year to incarcerate them for a year in prison. And education is like $5,000. It makes dollars and sense.

The DOC, it’s a triage situation. We have inmates, individuals getting ready to go home so we’re going to give them the programming because they’re going home.”

Anything else?

“Nobody wants to go back to prison. I’ve never met one person who wants to go back to prison. Everyone wants to come out and do well. But people feel alone and they feel overwhelmed. At Tomorrow’s Neighbors we’re big on accountability too. We went to prison for a reason, we deserved to be there but we also deserve a second chance when we come home.”



Talk about the training that you got while incarcerated.

“I took a forklift course at SCI Huntingdon. OSHA has a regulation you have to go through training wherever you go (even after training at Huntingdon.)

I also studied bakery at Frackville, Accounting at Pittsburgh and Peer assistant training, to help counsel inmates with mental health issues and substance use disorder.

Beatty is a machine operator by trade and drives a forklift off and on for eight hours a day at his current job.

“From high school, I always could operate different machinery and worked in a wood factory right after high school. The forklift training was one more thing I can put on my resume. It’s beneficial. Even more beneficial was a college-level accounting course I took at SCI Pittsburgh.”

Tell us about your work and your goals

“I actually enjoy my job, the work opportunity. Working with machines. But what motivated me to start my own non-profit was to move out of factory work because I’m 54.

I’ll be my own boss.

Beatty started ALL CAPS, a 503(c), originally to work with adults and give them an escape from the streets.

“But here in York City, there were a lot of young people dying from shootings. If I can change surely the children can change. I’m a totally different person. I want to help those young people as much as I can.”

“I’m mobile now and bought a seven-seat Ford Explorer to transport kids to the park or JCC in York. Where they could swim, work out in the gym, and eat a meal. I want to turn ALL CAPS into a fully functioning community center with its own building.”

How important is training in prison?

“I believe [training is] very necessary for the inmates. I believe in it. The book training.

People will seek it if you offer it. Most people would like to change. You can learn so much more in prison when you don’t have to pay bills [to survive] or worry about the stress of the world.

The more they learn the better chances they can succeed when they’re released.

[Beatty thinks the prison didn’t offer enough college-level curriculum but thinks online computer classes could help bring that to them.]

“I believe education at the next level should be offered. There can’t be a downside to learning.

We do change. No matter the age. There is hope.”

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