MPCF inmates gain opportunity with job fair

Employers, service agencies from across Iowa talk opportunities, accept resumes

GTNS photo by Grace King

Dan Ingersoll, left, and Melissa Stange, with Doerfer Companies, talk about career opportunities with an inmate at the Mt. Pleasant Correctional Facility during a job fair on Thursday, May 9.
GTNS photo by Grace King Dan Ingersoll, left, and Melissa Stange, with Doerfer Companies, talk about career opportunities with an inmate at the Mt. Pleasant Correctional Facility during a job fair on Thursday, May 9.

David Le, an inmate at the Mt. Pleasant Correctional Facility, clutched his resume, work history and the certificates he’s earned while talking with potential employers at a job fair on Thursday, May 9.

It was the first job fair Le has attended. While he was “slightly overwhelmed,” he was also excited to be preparing for his future.

Le has been working with Terry Zmolek, a re-entry adviser with Iowa Workforce Development, on thinking about what he wants to do with the rest of his life and creating a resume.

“Just because I’m a felon, doesn’t mean I can’t move forward,” Le said. “A lot of people in the prison system aren’t looking forward to looking for a job. It’s nice to know there are employers out there who are ready to hire me.”

The Mt. Pleasant Correctional Facility has been hosting job fairs since 2016, inviting employers and service agencies from across Iowa to meet with incarcerated individuals, accept resumes and even do interviews on the spot.

Cord Overton, communications director with the Iowa Department of Corrections, said that job fairs over the last few years have resulted in a culture shift in correctional facilities by keeping incarcerated individuals focused on the future, landing a job and paying the bills.

“We see that in the morale of inmates and staff,” Overton said. “There’s a decrease in the number of assaults within the facility, of inmates on inmates or inmates on staff.”

Brandon Lyman, inmate, attended the job fair on Thursday in the hope of applying for a few construction jobs. Lyman has completed 800 hours with the HVAC apprenticeship program.

“I like that we can see what else is out there for us when we’re out,” Lyman said. “I’m curious about benefits and what advancements are in the businesses.”

Shain Slick, inmate, got to speak with an employer who was hiring in the field he is interested in and the community he will return to.

“I’m trying to better myself. It seems to be paying off,” Slick said. “This facility has helped me out a lot. I’ve been in and out of prison for the last 10 years. This is my time. I’m tired of it.”

Jay Nelson, warden at the Mt. Pleasant Correctional Facility, said that a part of their mission is to prepare incarcerated individuals for their future, that includes connecting them with future employers.

“Anything we can do to reduce (recidivism) is a good thing,” Nelson said.

Carolyn Farley is an operations manager for IowaWORKS, which partners with the Department of Corrections to help organize job fairs in correctional facilities across Iowa.

Farley said it’s important to get people into jobs again as they leave correctional institutions. The unemployment rate in Iowa is at an all-time low and employers are looking for creative solutions to fill positions, Farley said.

With the Department of Corrections’ 21 apprenticeship programs available at correctional facilities, incarcerated individuals are very qualified candidates, Farley said.

There are several incentives for businesses to hire former incarcerated individuals including the Federal Bonding Program and the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, Farley said.

The Federal Bonding Program provides no cost fidelity bonds for returning citizens and other hard-to -place job applicants who face barriers to employment. The Work Opportunity Tax Credit is a federal tax credit available to employers who hire eligible individuals from target groups with significant barriers to employment.

Julie Redmond, operations manager with DES Employment Group in Cedar Rapids, said Des Employment Group believes in second chances and offering someone the opportunity to prove they can be productive members of society. Redmond has the resources to help job candidates create resumes, work on their interview skills and be well-dressed for interviews.

“Our office has a passion for working with incarcerated individuals,” Redmond said. “We’ve seen some really great success stories.”

Redmond said she has worked with former incarcerated individuals who have started in low-paying positions and worked their way up to management and supervisor positions.

“When people come out (of correctional facilities), they have 1,000 no’s before they get that one yes. We like to be that yes and give them hope.”

Amanda Sanders, with TEAM Staffing Solutions in Mt. Pleasant, said they have attended Mt. Pleasant Correctional Facility’s job fair many times. The apprenticeship programs are “so strong,” and prepare incarcerated individuals for jobs after incarceration, Sanders said.

“The men we see here have done their time and are ready to go back to business as usual,” Sanders said. “There’s some stigma attached. It’s helpful for these guys to go through an agency. There’s an extra level of reassurance.”

Sanders said she hopes more businesses feel encouraged to use the workforce coming from the correctional facility.

“They’re ready to go,” she said.

Lewis Boyd, with West Liberty Foods in West Liberty, said that they collect a lot of resumes when they attend job fairs at the correctional facility. While they have yet to hire someone from the Mt. Pleasant Correctional Facility, Boyd said he wants to help give them a second chance.

“We’re looking for people who are motivated, reliable and hard-working,” Boyd said, adding that the correctional facilities apprenticeships help prepare incarcerated individuals for their workforce.

Mike Kelsey, recruiting specialist with Hy-Vee, said that job fairs at correctional facilities offer great opportunities to connect potential employees to their stores.

“I’ve seen a lot of success in this program,” Kelsey said. “Everyone deserves the chance to prove themselves. SKill-wise, it’s all trainable. We’re looking for candidates who are responsible, on time and willing to advance themselves in their careers and make a great living for themselves and their families.”