A Missouri Job Center program that focuses on helping people with legal convictions find employment is finding success by moving classes inside prison walls.
The full program name is long: About Persons with Past Legal Issues in Employment. So, it’s shortened to APPLIE. The impact locally has been far-reaching.
Though APPLIE has been around Springfield over a dozen years, organizers expanded its reach last summer to Ozark Correctional Center in Fordland. Since then, over 40 OCC inmates have graduated from the class, said Carmen May, the Missouri Job Center’s supervisor of career services.
“Guys are really getting a lot out of it,” OCC Warden Bryan O’Connell said, noting the institution is the first in a prison setting to make use of APPLIE. “We’re basically the pilot for the program.”
The program includes training for online job applications, resume development and mock interviews.
Since Missouri Job Center staffers May and Belinda Lyon created APPLIE over a decade ago, classes have been held in the Missouri Job Center offices in Springfield and Branson, the Missouri Probation and Parole Office and at the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield. May said a six-week session of the class was brought to OCC for inmates who are 60-90 days away from release. The concluding event is a job fair in the prison.
“We teach them to be really good job seekers and how to talk honestly about their legal issues at the appropriate time,” May said, adding around 70% of the graduates at OCC have maintained employment since the program started in summer last year. “The reality is employers are missing out on a lot of really good employees. Just because people have a legal issue in their background doesn’t end their life. They need to be productive members of society.”
May said APPLIE helps remove barriers for the inmates to become productive citizens again.
“Now, we’re in a market where the unemployment is such that employers are willing to look at those people who may not have perfect pasts – and no one does – and they’re getting some really good employees,” she said.
Sense of accomplishment
When APPLIE graduate Kevin Plumlee entered the prison system, he was 23 years old. The Branson resident, now 33, was released earlier this year after serving time for first-degree assault and armed criminal action. Through his participation in the program, Plumlee is employed at Branson Cedars Resort in Ridgedale, where he is a maintenance and landscaping worker.
He said earning a steady paycheck for the job he’s held the past four months is far better than the $8.50 per month he received doing lawncare in prison. Getting involved in APPLIE was his initiative.
“I had to seek that out. I had to say I wanted to do this class,” Plumlee said, adding the job fair was a great experience because to prospective employers he wasn’t just an inmate number.
“That gave us the confidence to be who we were,” he said. “It gave every one of us in that class a sense of accomplishment.”
During the fair, he connected with Michael Hyams, chief operating officer at Branson Cedars Resort on State Highway 86. Plumlee said he had read up on the business, which offers unit rentals of log cabins and treehouses, and was prepared for his interview.
“I was studying. I was ready for Mike,” Plumlee said.
Plumlee knew more about his business than anyone he’s ever interviewed, Hyams said. It paid off, as Plumlee was hired on the spot.
Hyams, who is a partner in the resort with Jack and Patsy O’Kiefe, said he was “blown away” by the resumes when interviewing participants at the program’s job fair in May. He didn’t know what to expect and viewed going to OCC as a “last ditch effort” after trying other avenues to hire people, such as advertising in print, radio and television.
“What we didn’t expect was that they were going to be some of the best possible candidates we’ve ever seen,” he said. “These are skilled people who want to work. That was really what impressed us.”
Hyams said he would have hired five or six people if he had that many openings. More hiring chances will arise, he said, as the resort is an advocate of the program and plans to participate in future job fairs.
While the general premise of providing job-seeking tips is settled, May said the methods would change over time. The inmates have provided influence, she added, such as the need to provide budgeting advice. To address that aspect, Regions Bank is now involved in the program, providing staff members to teach one of the classes.
That’s a portion of the partner day in which representatives come in to discuss programs and answer questions. Partners include Missouri Department of Social Services’ Child Support Enforcement and Family Support Division, Legal Services of Southern Missouri, Missouri Vocational Rehabilitation, and local recovery and housing organizations.
The current class size is at 10-12 men, O’Connell said.
“They’re getting a lot of individualized attention,” he said.
The program is targeting the offender recidivism rate, officials say, as the Missouri Department of Corrections releases around 19,000 inmates annually. Employment is a key component.
According to the DOC, 69% of offenders who’ve never had full-time employment will be back in prison within two years. For those who’ve previously been employed full-time, the number drops to 23%.
For Plumlee, who just got married in September, he’s already returned to OCC – as a visitor. He’s spoken with other inmates about the program and believes his success can make an impact with them. Plumlee said he’s much more likely to listen to someone who had been through the program and can speak to its merits.
“Just because I left, I didn’t turn my back on those guys,” he said. “Those guys are me before I got out.”
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