By Heather Chapman
An innovative program in rural Tennessee is helping ex-convicts stay out of jail and remain gainfully employed. The nonprofit Middle Tennessee Rural Reentry Program asks local employers what kind of workers they need, and trains ex-offenders to fill those jobs. It was conceived by Christine Hopkins, an 82-year-old grandmother who partnered with Franklin County Sheriff Tim Fuller, who strongly believes in rehabilitation.
Hopkins, now the program’s executive director, had worked for 50 years in social services and workforce development, helping people with disabilities and mental illnesses find jobs after they had taken job-readiness training, Jane Von Bergen reports for the Philadelphia Inquirer: “The inmates needed more. They needed guided group therapy, which helps people understand the impact of their behavior, so they change how they think about themselves and life’s challenges . . . There was also training in parenting, budgeting and computer literacy.”
Franklin and surrounding counties have many auto-parts plants, so many of the program’s enrollees train to work in that field while still in jail, gaining certifications in skills such as injection molding and computer-machining fundamentals. “In Franklin County, when re-entry program graduates get out of jail, they head to the factory — neatly dressed, screened for drugs, resume in hand, ready to interview and begin working,” Von Bergen reports. “Since January 2016, 61 have participated in the injection molding training and been released. And of those, only 16 have returned to jail — that’s 26 percent, compared to 80 percent, the county’s usual recidivism rate. The number is even lower for successful graduates, less than 10 percent.”
Local employers benefit too: the unemployment rate in Franklin County is only 2.9 percent, so some of the automotive manufacturers have a hard time finding workers. The program is funded through private donations and a three-year federal Second Chance Act grant for $747,619.