Hope Springs Eternal: New collaborative program in Texas prison gives female inmates opportunities to ‘dwell in possibility’ – and join the industry workforce

By Margaret Hession

Sometimes the best quotes have a special power to inspire us to change our mindset, see things from a fresh perspective, and perhaps propel us into action.

“I dwell in possibility,” said the poet Emily Dickinson. She also stated, “Hope springs eternal.”

At Lockhart Correctional Facility in Lockhart, Texas—a minimum-security prison located in Caldwell County, 32 miles from downtown Austin and better known for its barbecue than its jail—on every wall, along every corridor in the facility, female inmates have painted their favorite inspiring quotes with murals, including quotes by Dickinson.

Lockhart Correctional Facility believes in second chances for its inmates and prepping these females for future work success. It provides many work opportunities, educational and vocational programs to its offenders and is managed by Management & Training Corporation (MTC) who believe in rehabilitation through educational opportunities. Their motto is BIONIC (an acronym for Believe it or not I care).

One of the new pilot programs teaches female inmates trade skills in manufacturing to set them up for employment in industry upon their release into society.

“I was brought in in shackles and released in shackles. Today, for my graduation ceremony, I walked in the front door like everyone else—a free woman, only this time I have a college certificate and an industry certification,” said Casey Brem, 35 of Midland, wiping tears from her face.

Brem is one of 14 students who graduated on August 24, 2019 from the Certified Production Technician program.  She was released early in July, but continued her studies for the program at home and then voluntarily returned to the facility via a 5-hour drive from Midland with her mother to graduate alongside her 13 fellow students.

While completing the course work through ACC, the 14 students also took their national manufacturing certification assessments with a nearly 100% success rate and walked across the stage to receive their diploma from their Engineering Program Instructor, Rosalba Schramm, and Don Tracy, the administrator of ACC correctional educational program.

“This program would not have been made possible without the partnership between Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) and Workforce Solutions Rural Capital (WSRCA), the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), and Lockhart Correctional Facility who went above and beyond,” said Tracy, from the podium where he called out each of the inmates by their first name and acknowledged the journey they had taken together.

“It takes partnerships. Meanwhile, these women have worked so tremendously hard,” Tracy continued. “They’ve earned this.”

The training is funded through a Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act (WIOA) program and utilized existing manufacturing equipment available within the industry program at the facility.

What will happen after graduation? As each participant has a different release date from incarceration after they graduate from the program, they will work closely with TWC Workforce Solutions Rural Capital case managers to review career options with local employers in Hays and Caldwell counties (and other WFS offices across the state) to leverage their certifications.

“It was an honor to help celebrate with these graduates and their families as they accomplished this milestone in their personal and professional lives,” said Workforce Solutions Rural Capital Area CEO Paul Fletcher. “This manufacturing certification program came as a result of listening to the workforce needs of our industry partners, and then tapping into our strong community partnerships to deliver training solutions.”

“Today tells us what can be done when thinking outside the box happens with people with big ideas and big hearts,” said TWC Commissioner Representing Labor Julian Alvarez, who was the main commencement speaker at the graduation. He received no less than eight standing ovations from the inmates and their families.

“With a 3.4% unemployment rate in Texas, this is precisely the way we become innovative in our thinking and solve a shortage for skilled workers. Everyone deserves a second chance and these hardworking and inspiring women today only reinforce that message in magnitude,” Alvarez continued.

This is the first time ACC and WSRCA has partnered with the staff at the prison to offer a program like this. Nevertheless, it seems likely to be repeated with funding for the second cohort already approved.

Warden Jennifer Brown believes in the program and in its ability to change lives for her inmates.

“We all make mistakes and these are someone’s mother or future mother—someone’s sister or daughter,” said Warden Brown – a female with 27 years in the prison industry who stood up to clap for each of her graduating inmates—and who got her own standing ovation.

“These women deserve every opportunity to become all they can be, improve their circumstances and have a second chance at improving their lives,” Brown continued. “I’m so grateful to The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), and others who without their support none of this would be possible,” Brown added.   

If adequate employment, training and certification is a prerequisite for successful re-entry into society for all inmates, then this program has already succeeded.

The inmates believe in the importance of the pilot program although some expressed surprise that females were included in the first ever pilot.  

“I couldn’t believe they would offer this opportunity first to women. They rarely if ever offer things first to women,” said Alison Albanese, 36, of Corpus Christi, during her commencement speech, fighting back tears and drawing tears from all of her cohorts. “We are just so grateful. You don’t know how grateful we are,” Albanese continued.

When asked what she would tell an employer who might be hesitant to hire an ex-offender, fighting back tears, as she held onto her own daughter who came to see her mom walk the stage, Misty Campbell, 46, of Amarillo, stopped thoughtfully, looked at her daughter, and then wiped tears from her eyes.

“They should know that we have to work three times as hard as a non-offender and we know that. We have to work harder to establish that trust more than anyone else does.  We are just happy for the opportunity to be treated like human beings and we will do whatever it takes,” Campbell stated.

“I’m not the same person who walked in here 4 years ago. This certification has built up my confidence. It has given me hope,” Campbell continued. “I’m ready for another chance.  I am stronger this time. I’ll do better.”

Sometimes hope does spring eternal.

To see a KXAN video story of these students please click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=oVhZmh9iriQ

31 Central Texas Employers Honored at ‘We Hire Vets’ Ceremony for their Commitment to Hiring Veterans

PHOTO: Workforce Solutions of Central Texas COO Ken Cox, TWC Commissioner Representing Employers Ruth R. Hughs, and Central Texas Workforce Development Board Executive Director Susan Kamas, at the Killeen "We Hire Vets" event.
PHOTO: Workforce Solutions of Central Texas COO Ken Cox, TWC Commissioner Representing Employers Ruth R. Hughs, and Central Texas Workforce Development Board Executive Director Susan Kamas, at the Killeen “We Hire Vets” event.

The Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) and Workforce Solutions of Central Texas honored 31 area employers for their commitment to hiring veterans during a recent “We Hire Vets” recognition ceremony.

The event was held at Workforce Solutions of Central Texas Killeen on May 25.

Launched in 2017, “We Hire Vets” is an employer recognition program developed by TWC in partnership with the Texas Veterans Commission and Texas Workforce Solutions Offices, to recognize Texas employers for their efforts in hiring our nation’s heroes. Employers whose workforce is comprised of at least 10 percent military veterans are eligible to receive a “We Hire Vets” employer recognition decal to display on their storefront, as well as an electronic decal to display on the employer’s website.

Among the many employers recognized at the event was McLane Southwest, one of the largest supply chain services leaders in the country, maintaining one of the nation’s most expansive private fleets.

“At McLane Southwest, we feel it is a value to pursue and hire our veterans of this great country. In fact, 14.7 percent of McLane Southwest’s workforce is comprised of veterans,” said Gary Johnson, McLane Southwest Division President of Grocery Supply Chain Solutions. “These individuals come from a previous background where a culture of accomplishment and teamwork are second nature. Many of them possess some form of leadership training and capability, and they take their assigned responsibilities very seriously. Our veterans are not afraid of hard work, and given the right opportunity and support, they become some of the most valuable assets to our organization.”

McLane Southwest's Warriors to Wheels LogoMcLane’s commitment to veterans led the company to launch a Registered Driver Apprenticeship program featuring a veteran initiative, Warriors to Wheels.

The Warriors to Wheels program is designed to attract and provide military veterans an “earn while you learn” training model that utilizes their military training experience to move into a career in transportation. McLane offers careers that don’t require drivers to be away from their families for extended periods of time. Delivery drivers run 1-2-day routes, with over 80 distribution centers nationwide.

“McLane values military veterans and the work ethic and skills they bring to the table. Because of this, McLane decided to provide an opportunity for veterans to utilize their military training and start a new career in transportation, with the goal of becoming part of the McLane family. This program enables eligible veterans to take full advantage of their GI Bill benefits while training to become a McLane Driver. For more information and a list of participating locations, please go to www.mclanew2w.com,” said Jennifer Rojas Clause, Inclusion and EEO Compliance Manager at McLane.

Another Central Texas employer who was recognized for their commitment to hiring veterans is Seton Medical Center Harker Heights (SMCHH), whose workforce is comprised of at least 12 percent military veterans.

PHOTO: (L) Michael Hales, RN at Seton Medical Center Harker Heights, Zachary K. Dietze, CEO of Seton Medical Center Harker Heights, TWC Commissioner Representing Employers Ruth R. Hughs, and Central Texas Workforce Development Board Executive Director Susan Kamas, at the Killeen "We Hire Vets" event.
PHOTO: (L) Michael Hales, RN at Seton Medical Center Harker Heights, Zachary K. Dietze, CEO of Seton Medical Center Harker Heights, TWC Commissioner Representing Employers Ruth R. Hughs, and Central Texas Workforce Development Board Executive Director Susan Kamas, at the Killeen “We Hire Vets” event.

SMCHH offers an array of health services for the Central Texas community, such as a Cardiology, Emergency Services and a Level IV Trauma Designated Emergency Room.

“At Seton Medical Center Harker Heights we are honored to be recognized by ‘We Hire Vets.’ We understand the advantages that come with hiring veterans and the invaluable experience they bring to our organization. We will continue to make it a priority to hire veterans and are fortunate to be part of the larger Fort Hood community,” said SMCHH CEO Zachary K. Dietze.

Some of the other employers recognized at the Killeen event included Azbell Electronics, Central Texas College, the Cities of Belton, Harker Heights, Lampasas and Rockdale, as well as General Dynamics Land Systems.

For maintaining a workforce of about 25 percent veterans, the Workforce Solutions of Central Texas Board and Workforce Center were also recognized at the Killeen event by TWC Commissioner Representing Employers Ruth R. Hughs.

During previous recognition events, Lockheed Martin, Prudential Financial, the San Antonio Police Department and Southwest Airlines have been honored as “We Hire Vets” employers.

We Hire Vets LogoEmploying veterans creates a dedicated workforce with employees who know how to lead, build teams, and accept and meet challenges. Recognition of employers with veteran-friendly hiring practices is an important aspect of the Texas Operation Welcome Home (TOWH) initiative that assists recently separated veterans with employment and training opportunities.

As Gov. Greg Abbott shared when the “We Hire Vets” program was launched, “It is important to recognize current employers utilizing our highly-skilled veteran workforce, and encourage future employers to consider veterans in their hiring process. While we can never say ‘thank you’ enough, the ‘We Hire Vets’ program will create well-deserved opportunities to get our veterans back into the workforce.”

For more information on TOWH and the “We Hire Vets” program, and to download the “We Hire Vets” nomination/employer form, visit www.TexasOperationWelcomeHome.org.

Full List of Central Texas Employers Recognized at the Event:

More Photos from the Event:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Willie Taylor: Permian Basin Workforce Board CEO with a Lifetime of Service, Credits Partnerships, Board Stability for Success

Asking the right questions isn’t just for journalists and writers. Questions are also how we grow. They help us pass our experiences from one person to the next.

PHOTO: Willie Taylor, Permian Basin Workforce Board CEO
PHOTO: Willie Taylor, Permian Basin Workforce Board CEO

“I’m a firm believer that the only difference between me and my customer is my desk,” says Willie Taylor, CEO for Workforce Solutions Permian Basin, known to invite job seekers into his office and whose staff provide work search and related services to people in 17 counties, 15 of which are rural. “It could be me looking for a job, it could be me without transportation, or I could be needing day care to go to work,” Taylor says.

Meanwhile, it’s likely more than a desk that makes the lifelong Odessa resident different from others. In the office by 6 a.m. each morning, Taylor has led the Workforce Board since its certification in 1996. Taylor’s been “in the system” for 46 years, he says, working to bring services to his community since the 1970s, and has learned what is effective for successful workforce development: partnerships and stability.

What is the most important thing you feel you do that contributes to the success of your local Workforce Development Board?

It’s all about building partnerships, especially with local colleges and universities, economic development councils, the chamber. Once you develop those partnerships, it’s easier to get things done in the community: for example, retooling your colleges to provide training in automotive, diesel or trade. We have our targeted occupations list, which we take into the public-school system and work with (guidance) counselors to help students make informed career choices.

Can you tell me something your Board is doing to prepare for current and future workforce demands?

Our board is focused on growing our own workforce, since we have challenges bringing people here. We’re blessed to have three community colleges: Odessa, Midland and Howard College, Texas Tech for medicine, UT Permian Basin for engineering. The cost of living is high, but if workers have a place to live and family here, or they’re going to school here, we can develop our existing workforce rather than relocate workers here.

We’ve been hit hard with a lack of truck drivers, due to the demands of the oil and gas industry. We’re applying for a high demand occupation grant partnering TWC with Midland Development Corporation to train 75-90 more truck drivers in a four-month program that’s got a 90% passing rate.

Permian Basin Workforce Development Board CEO Willie Taylor (left) with Mary Dunlap, senior human resources manager, and Mark Horner, senior human resources manager, at Warren Equipment Company at a Texas Workforce Conference in 2017.
PHOTO: Permian Basin Workforce Development Board CEO Willie Taylor (left) with Mary Dunlap, senior human resources manager, and Mark Horner, senior human resources manager, at Warren Equipment Company at a Texas Workforce Conference in 2017.

How did you end up in a career in workforce development?

Even when I was in college, I loved working with people and helping them. After college, I worked in the oil and gas industry, exploration and production, for 2-3 years, then for the Permian Basin Regional Planning Commission. In the mid-1970s I took a summer youth counseling job under the Manpower Development Training Act, and I became the executive director at the planning commission.

What do you do outside of the office?

I love playing golf, and I have an automotive repair shop, where I love working on Chevys and Fords. I [also] volunteer. I’m president of the Medical Center Hospital Family Clinics, which serves about 4,000 people who come to see medical doctors for treatment.

Would you like to share a success story? 

In workforce development you touch a lot of lives, and you don’t know how much you impact them until you see them making a living for their families.

In Seminole, Texas, we had a rancher going through a difficult time. I worked with him with our dislocated worker program, which helped farmers and ranchers.  I was working with him — and when you think of a farmer you think independent. I got him into training at Midland College’s air conditioning training and started his own business. He’s doing very well now, in business more than 20 years.