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Many Oregon Inmates Working Hard to Get Jobs

Welding is one of the careers people can apply to learn through Oregon Corrections Enterprises. This man is working in the metal shop inside Oregon State Penitentiary. Courtesy: Oregon Department of Corrections.
Welding is one of the careers people can apply to learn through Oregon Corrections Enterprises. This man is working in the metal shop inside Oregon State Penitentiary. Courtesy: Oregon Department of Corrections.
June 17, 2015

SALEM, Ore. - No one may have watched the debate over a "Ban the Box" bill in the Oregon Legislature more closely than the 1,300 people who are working on their job skills in prison.

According to House Bill 3025, the legislation now on its its way to Gov. Kate Brown's desk, employers can no longer ask on job applications if the applicant has been convicted of a crime.

Heidi Steward, assistant director for offender management and rehabilitation at the Oregon Department of Corrections, listed more than a dozen careers for which inmates can train while they're serving time. She said she thinks banning that particular check-box on applications will make a difference.

"Many times, these individuals are screened out just because they check that box," she said. "I think by just getting that opportunity to get in there and to have an interview, and to show them what they've done, the skills that they've obtained and what kind of person they are, it's really a big step in the right direction."

Steward said the corrections system has a network of employers who are willing to hire people upon release, but it's a constant process of raising awareness so others will open doors for those trying to start anew after prison. The bill's backers said it gives people a chance to explain their history, not omit it.

Getting into a job-training program behind bars isn't easy. There's a waiting list, and preference is given to people with good behavior and within four years of their release, to ensure they'll have the most current skills in their trade. Benny Ward, offender services manager for Oregon Corrections Enterprises, said aptitude and attitude are critical.

"What we want people to know is that they've shown up to work every day. It's just like a, so to speak, 'real job,' where if they don't show up, we'll let 'em go," Ward said. "So, we're teaching them the life skills that go along with what it takes to be a successful employee."

Career fields in the Oregon correctional system include automotive repair, cosmetology, computer-aided design, commercial sewing, laundry and printing services, and construction trades, from cabinet-making and welding to electrical work. The most recent addition is wildland firefighting.

Details of the legislation are online at olis.leg.state.or.us.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - OR