Coaches Help Released Inmates Step From The Cell Into A Job

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Labor Secretary Tom Perez are traveling to Montgomery County, Md., to highlight workforce training for inmates about to leave prisons and jails. They plan to replicate the county's program around the U.S. by giving federal grant money.

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A couple of Obama administration officials spent some time in a jail this week by choice. They visited a detention center to meet with inmates nearing release. The stop is part of a federal effort to better prepare prisoners to re-enter their communities. One of those goals is to help connect the inmates with jobs. NPR's Carrie Johnson also got the behind-the-scenes tour.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The Montgomery County Maryland Correctional Facility is a thousand-bed detention center with spit-shined floors and cinder block walls the color of butter pecan. It's not every day the Labor Secretary and the Attorney General arrive for a visit. Warden Robert Green.

ROBERT GREEN: So this is the one-stop work center.

TOM PEREZ: Oh, great.

GREEN: I'd like to invite you in...

ERIC HOLDER: How you doing?

GREEN: be greeted by two exceptional individuals.

JOHNSON: Those individuals help connect inmates getting ready to leave the facility to jobs and training on the outside.

ROJAS: Hi. I'm Coach Rojas and I'm actually the workforce development trainer.

JOHNSON: Her co-worker, Alisa Smedley, says they use the word coach for a reason.

ALISA SMEDLEY: We take your weaknesses and turn them into strengths. In many settings, people want to focus on just your assets. We don't talk about weakness. Well, coaches do. Coaches want you to shoot better or hit faster or something. So we focus on sports culture here.

JOHNSON: The coaches report to work at the detention center a few days a week. They help inmates create resumes, browse through job listings and connect with schools.

PEREZ: I firmly believe that one of the most effective strategies to keep our communities safe is to make sure when people get out of jail, they have a job.

JOHNSON: Labor Secretary Tom Perez says the program in Maryland is worth replicating all over the country.

PEREZ: We have 2,700 American job centers across the country. But I need one hand or perhaps just my thumbs to count the number of American job centers that are here in jails.

JOHNSON: Now, aside from the Maryland facility, there are three others located in jails. But the Labor Department and the Justice Department are launching a new program to bring the job centers to 10 more sites. Attorney General Eric Holder says inmates who participate in these programs have lower rates of recidivism and the old way of doing things doesn't work.

HOLDER: You know, I think for too long we've thought that we can take people out of negative situations with all kinds of deficits, warehouse them and then put them right back in the places that they came from and somehow expect a different result.

JOHNSON: The Attorney General and the Labor Secretary met privately with a couple of inmates nearing release. One of them is Paul. The warden and the Justice Department asked us not to use his last name. He's served 16 months for armed robbery and second-degree assault. Paul says when he started going to the job center, he was contrary, back-talking and contradicting the coaches.

PAUL: Coach Smedley and Coach Rojas was persistent in coaxing me to go back to school. And then the more I thought about it and the more I looked into it, I realized that was the best idea for me. So, I mean, as of right now, my future goals are to definitely get back into school. I've looked into careers such as graphic design, web development.

JOHNSON: So thanks to the jail's jobs program, Paul is thinking about his artistic side - trying to design a new and better life for himself. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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