The blog of the Urban Institute
December 19, 2019

Kentucky Addresses a Key Weakness in Many Prison Apprenticeship Programs

December 19, 2019

Job seekers who have recently been released from prison face challenges that make landing a job extremely difficult.

Apprenticeship opportunities for people who are incarcerated or recently released from prison could help solve this problem. Apprenticeship combines occupational training in the classroom with productive employment and on-the-job training. By directly connecting training to work experience and a job, apprenticeship forges stronger ties with the labor market than other types of education and training.

Apprenticeship programs in prisons are still relatively rare, but we studied several operating prison apprenticeship programs and identified key strengths and weaknesses. This research suggested that incarcerated apprentices could obtain well-paying jobs after release and make valuable connections to people in the labor market.

Research shows that securing employment after release reduces the chance that people return to prison. In-prison education and training programs are largely effective and increasingly popular, but demand for them far exceeds supply.

Our data analysis showed that apprentices in prison had higher program completion rates than apprentices outside of prison, although they are paid much less. The apprenticeship model is heralded for offering market wages with scheduled increases, but federal law allows prisons to pay very little or no wages.

Prison walls constrain occupational offerings

Apprenticeship program staff we spoke to described the physical limitations that prisons place on the types of occupational training offered and the quality of apprentices’ on-the-job training. Prison-based apprenticeship programs tend to train people in facility management jobs like housekeeping, cleaning, cooking, office machine repairing, and landscaping, simply because that work is physically present in the prison.

These occupations, while appropriate for apprenticeships, are not the most in-demand jobs in the labor market. Our research made clear that when prisons themselves are the employer in the apprenticeship program, the available occupations and on-the-job training opportunities are limited.

Kentucky’s Justice to Journeyman program seeks to expand opportunities

This summer, Derrick Ramsey, Kentucky’s secretary of education and workforce development, visited the Urban Institute and shared a new program that provides a solution to the limited occupational choices in prison apprenticeship programs. Kentucky’s Justice to Journeyman apprenticeship program, based in seven of Kentucky’s correctional facilities, includes both classroom-based occupational instruction and on-the-job training.

Secretary Ramsey noted the program’s critical innovation: starting the classroom instruction component at the beginning of the apprenticeship, while the apprentice is still in the correctional facility.

Most of the on-the-job training in the Justice to Journeyman program occurs after the classroom instruction, when the apprentice is released from prison. By sequencing the apprenticeship in this way and aligning the transition to on-the-job training with the apprentice’s release date, Justice to Journeyman can offer training in high-demand jobs that may not have positions available at the prison facility itself.

Our research shows that prison-based apprenticeship programs nationally focus on occupations like housekeeping, cleaning, cooking, and groundskeeping, but Justice to Journeyman trains apprentices to be welders, electricians, and telecommunications workers.

The Justice to Journeyman initiative is an important step in harnessing more effective education and training programs to reduce recidivism. The program is still fairly new, and further study is needed to fully understand the outcomes on recidivism.

But the direct connection to the labor market is a feature that other correctional apprenticeship programs should consider. In particular, prisons with strong associated reentry programs that could connect apprentices to employers might benefit from a similar model.

Another strategy we heard was allowing people to leave the prison temporarily to complete on-the-job training and therefore access the kinds of jobs that might be in demand in the community but aren’t available within prison walls.

Experimenting with new models and strategies

Kentucky’s Justice to Journeymen model has the potential to make apprenticeship training better serve people in prison, but we still know relatively little about other strategies.

The US Department of Labor has invested resources to understand what strategies are able to support diversity and inclusion in apprenticeship, including the long-standing Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupations grant and the more recent national equity partner contracts. These investments target women, underrepresented minorities, people with disabilities, and disconnected youth but not people involved in the justice system.

To effectively serve people in prison and recent reentrants, the US Department of Labor and other federal agencies should experiment with alternative apprenticeship models and supportive services that fit the special circumstances of prison-based education and training.

People in prison should also play a central role in developing apprenticeship programs that serve their needs.

For example, our research found that one of the major disruptors of an apprentice’s progress was being transferred between correctional facilities. A naïve solution to this problem would be to try to reduce transfers for people in prison who are enrolled in an apprenticeship program.

Although this may be an appropriate solution in some cases, people often transfer between correctional facilities to be closer to their families. The benefits of proximity to family may outweigh the costs of disruption in an apprenticeship program. Involving people in prison in the program design process can help them have a voice in striking the right balance between alternative apprenticeship models and policies.

Prison-based apprenticeship programs are relatively rare, but they are growing as an education and training strategy. Policymakers should be attentive to the research, trailblazers like Kentucky’s Justice to Journeyman program, and the voices of people in prison who are committed to improving their future.

Kentucky’s secretary of education and workforce development Derrick Ramsey (L) and Urban Institute Fellow Robert I. Lerman. Photo by Rhiannon Newman for the Urban Institute.

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