Not Your Average Campus Tour

My visit to Vocational Village — Michigan's in-prison skilled trades program

Behind the razor-wire-lined double fence of the Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, Michigan lies something that could change the lives of prisoners, area businesses and even the corrections system. It’s the Vocational Village, which equips inmates for work in the skilled trades.

My tour guides are Michigan Department of Corrections legislative liaison Kyle Kaminski and Acting Deputy Warden Scott Yokom. As we head to the library, Kaminski tells me that roughly 80 percent of the prisoners who have completed the new program find jobs.

In the library, a diverse group of men study. This space is part classroom, part study hall, and through it the men can earn a degree in ministerial leadership from Calvin College. Three men talk with us, enthusiastic about their education. One of them, serving a life sentence, plans to develop programs at other Michigan prisons to reach younger inmates. “They may be in here, but their minds are still on the streets,” he tells me. “They need to know how much an education can open up for you and how important it is.”

Everything about the school, including tutors and 4,000 books, comes as a donation. The students are quick to tell me that they have the same curriculum as on-campus students. “Except we don’t have as many distractions as they do,” one man quips. The prisoners average a 3.6 GPA — higher than their on-campus counterparts.

A few minutes later, we head to the vocational office, where prisoners practice interviewing, update their resumes, and look for jobs. The Corrections Department is building relationships with local employers, many of which struggle to find skilled laborers. Kaminski tells me that the West Michigan bias towards restorative justice and rehabilitation means that Villagers are more likely to get a second look from hiring managers.

Our next stop is a large carpentry shop, where some men are painting and others are making cabinets for Habitat for Humanity houses. The carpentry students have framed up part of a house for the plumbing and electrician students, who are practicing how to bend pipes.

We say goodbye and head to a brightly lit garage. Like every shop I visit, it has a study area, a classroom, a lab and an instructor. The subject matter is broken up into increasingly advanced modules, with lab stations of varying complexity. Every instructor is good-humored and clearly well-practiced at talking to visitors. The students are serious and courteous and occasionally step forward with a piece of work they want me to see.

One student shows me an air conditioning system, which his instructor had removed from an engine and reassembled so students could study it more closely. Yokom tells me, “We don’t want these guys to end up at Jiffy Lube. They’re qualified to become professional mechanics.” The auto tech students, like everyone I’ll see today, will leave prison with national certifications in their fields.

Students train using the same equipment, including welding tools and computer numerical control machines, that they’ll use in the field. With this practical experience and their certifications, Yokom says, the students are ready to work the day they arrive at their jobs. “Some of our partner employers tell us that our students are more qualified than employees that come from community colleges.”

As I leave the prison, my mind returns in the classroom building. I hadn’t been sure what to expect when I ventured behind the razor wire, but what I found was an atmosphere of focus and optimism. The students were proud of their work and grateful for the program and their instructors. And I’m gratified that this program is earning wider attention.