- Associated Press - Sunday, September 27, 2015

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Seven men dressed in matching blue jeans and tan button-up shirts gathered on a recent Thursday to graduate from a welding program that is the first of its kind in Oklahoma.

They were trained by local teachers, given space and equipment by local businesses and received employment assistance from a local nonprofit - a collaborative effort to help them get something thousands of Oklahomans need every year: a job after incarceration.

Convicted of crimes ranging from burglary to drug possession, the inmates at the Oklahoma City Community Corrections Center are a few months from their release dates, The Oklahoman (https://bit.ly/1QAAlXN ) reported.

They are the first to finish a welding certification program that is a partnership between the Oklahoma Department of Corrections and local businesses and organizations, funded by a U.S. Department of Labor grant.

“This eliminates the felon question (on a job application),” Greg Dewald, a superintendent at CareerTech and one of the welding program managers, told the men. “You have this, and you’re on ground zero.”

The question on many job applications that asks about past felony convictions can be a big hurdle to climb for former inmates seeking employment, said Kris Steele, executive director of The Education and Employment Ministry known as TEEM. He said community involvement in rehabilitating convicted criminals who will soon be living in neighborhoods across the state is vital to lowering recidivism.

“We know based on the research that a key factor oftentimes would be substance abuse issues, mental illness, unresolved trauma, things of that nature,” Steele said. “By working together we can put a collaboration together that addresses those issues and then couple that with some tangible job training, some employment assistance, some case management services, some mentoring relationships, then I think we can begin to turn the tide.”

Allowing low-risk inmates to work during business hours while serving time at community corrections centers is nothing new in Oklahoma, but the community partnerships involved in the welding program make it a unique venture.

“This program is going to allow offenders an opportunity to go out and start their career and better prepare them for life on the outside,” said Brian Thornburgh, a state Corrections Department district supervisor. “It is also going to allow them to remain in their treatment programs and earn a living while they are finishing their sentence.”

Thornburgh said inmates on work release can keep about a third of their profits while incarcerated, allowing them to earn money to pay off fines and court fees. Many save their paychecks to help them get on their feet after release.

Aside from receiving welding training, the inmates have been offered financial literacy courses and a year of case management to help insure they maintain employment, housing and transportation.

“Can I just say something?” said Christopher Smith as he walked up to accept his welding certificate. “None of this would be possible without the hard work of all of these guys right here.” Smith pointed to the instructors and staff members who put the program together as the crowd of a few dozen applauded.

Some of the inmates have already accepted jobs, Steele said, and he expects at least eight inmates to graduate with a welding license every six to eight weeks for the next year, when the program’s federal funding ends.

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Information from: The Oklahoman, https://www.newsok.com

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