Tenn. sheriff's office hosts inmate job fair

"I'm here to let inmates know that they can get a job, make a livable wage and get out of their former lifestyle," said one employer

By La Shawn Pagan
Chattanooga Times Free Press
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Hamilton County inmates nearing release and seeking work were given an opportunity Tuesday to introduce themselves to area employers at a job fair.

About a dozen vendors attended the event, hosted by the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office at the Silverdale Detention Center. They offered job training and placement, counseling, financial literacy and more to around 40 inmates who are days or months away from being released from the Tennessee Department of Correction.

A very enthusiastic Philip Barney of the Iron Workers Local 704 hoped to offer not just a stable job, but also a chance to build something more meaningful.

"I'm here to let [inmates] know that they can get a job, make a livable wage and get out of their former lifestyle and build a career," Barney said. "This is an opportunity for anyone to learn a trade that starts with a base pay of $14 to $15 an hour and continues to increase with experience."

Ironworkers are necessary for the construction of things like buildings and stadiums, he said.

Zack Watkins, who is slated for release on Saturday, said he's nervous but hopeful.

"I'm looking forward to getting a job," said Watkins, who was offered a position starting on Monday with one of the vendors. "This has been a blessing."

Latricia Schobert with Financial Counseling and Education Services came to present inmates with tools to become financially stable and then maintain that stability by budgeting, saving and managing debt. Her program also helps to assist in any potential identity fraud issues.

"We all need to be talking about financial literacy," Schobert said. "They are vulnerable to identity theft while they're incarcerated, so we also help them get that paperwork started."

Like all the inmates who participated in the job fair, Watkins has been an active member of the sheriff's office's Re-Entry Program, which has helped more than 500 inmates since it was established in 2018. The program provides stress and anger management classes, classes on how to live in the outside world after being in prison and 12-step recovery programs, in addition to special programs that focus on helping and empowering female inmates.

"If you're incarcerated, take advantage of the program," Watkins said. "It has truly been a blessing to me."

Another inmate looking forward to getting a fresh start was Randy Harris, who has been in and out of the prison system for over 20 years and is scheduled to be released in February.

"I'm ready to make a change," Harris said. "I'm ready to make a good life for me and my wife, to settle down and have a simple life. I'm 41 years old. I'm getting too old for this."

Harris said he feels better prepared this time around for a successful life outside the prison system, in great part due to the Re-Entry Program.

"The [program] has shown me what I've done in the past that has brought me here," Harris said. "I've put God first, and I'm ready to make a good life now."

Re-Entry Program supervisor Wendy Harris said she launched the inmate job fair in 2018 with the help of social counselor Laurie Gandre. The program had just a handful of vendors at first, she said, but it has grown. Tuesday's turnout of participants and vendors was encouraging, Wendy Harris said, and it was exciting to think about the possibilities facing the inmates to lead successful, productive lives once they're released.

"[We] would like for them to have a well thought out plan to re-enter society and become successful and reclaim their life," she said.

The program also helps with polishing life and social skills to better cope with the challenges of a new start.
"We want to reduce recidivism. It helps everyone when we have productive members of society. Everyone benefits from it," she said.

According to program literature, inmates who are provided with a support system during their transition from being incarcerated to being released are far less likely to commit crimes and are more likely to secure employment and have a better ability to care for themselves and their families.
(c)2021 the Chattanooga Times/Free Press (Chattanooga, Tenn.)

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