From prison to a payroll: Program trains inmates as machinists

Kimberlee Browne watches as metal is sheared off the top of a metal block at Lake Area...
Kimberlee Browne watches as metal is sheared off the top of a metal block at Lake Area Technical College’s precision machining lab in Watertown on Jan. 20, 2023. Through a new training program, Brown earned a certificate in machining while she was incarcerated at the Women’s Prison.(J.T. Fey/for South Dakota Searchlight)
Published: Jan. 30, 2023 at 1:58 PM CST
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WATERTOWN, S.D. (South Dakota Searchlight) - Over 40% of South Dakota prisoners return after release. Officials hope free higher education will help.

Kimberlee Browne thought she’d die on the streets.

The 40-year-old mother of six and former educator has been in and out of the South Dakota prison system twice since 2012. Each time she was released, something would happen to make her lose her confidence and faith; she’d fall back into bad habits and be arrested, typically for drug use.

Browne is one of thousands of South Dakota prisoners released back into society each year. She’s also part of over 40% of prisoners who’ve returned to prison within 36 months of their release.

South Dakota has an average 36-month recidivism rate of 42.5%. Alaska has the highest recidivism rate, with 61.6% of its released inmates returning to the prison system.

After her latest release in late 2022, Browne is confident she won’t return this time.

That’s largely due to her certificate in precision machining from Lake Area Technical College — earned while she was serving her last sentence at the Women’s Prison in Pierre.

Her parole was contingent upon completing the program, which she said outweighed the cost of completing her sentence without the program — without a home, job or family to return to.

“A lot of us in prison don’t believe in us. Nothing took away my intelligence or my good heart, but I didn’t believe I was worth anything anymore,” Browne said. “This gave me the realization that I could be successful, that I matter and that I have purpose. All of that was true before the class, but now it feels like the sky is the limit.”

The program is a partnership between the state Department of Corrections, the state Department of Labor and Regulation and the state’s technical colleges. Since the program kicked off in January 2022, 29 prisoners have graduated so far with certificates in welding and precision machining.

Such higher education programs for inmates are proven to lower recidivism rates, and officials hope the partnership will help address South Dakota’s workforce needs in some of its most in-demand fields.

Filling South Dakota’s workforce & ‘hot jobs’ needs

Browne, originally from Vermillion, will start her new precision machining job at a facility in Watertown next month.

The starting wage for students who complete the certification ranges from $19 to $21 an hour. And if Browne decides to complete a two-year associate degree in precision machining, that jumps up to between $32 and $34 an hour — about $70,000 a year.

In January 2022, more than 300 jobs were projected to open in the precision machining field in South Dakota by the beginning of this year.

Discussions about offering postsecondary education certificates to inmates began in the fall of 2021, said Kendra Ringstmeyer, the state Department of Labor and Regulation’s workforce development director.

The program is funded through SD UpSkill, a partnership between the Board of Technical Education and the state DLR, which was originally developed with funding from the federal Department of Labor to offer 18-credit short term certificate programs for people who lost their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic.

Women who are minimum or low-medium custody, completed high school or earned a GED, and are within six months of their prison release date are eligible to enroll in the Pierre cohort, learning manual mills and lathes and Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machining.

Now, the program has expanded beyond Pierre and Lake Area Tech’s partnership to include a welding certification program through Southeast Tech in Sioux Falls, another precision machining certification program through the Regional Technical Education Center in Yankton, and a two-semester construction technology program through Western Dakota Technical College in Rapid City.

The state DLR also offers incentives for employers to hire released inmates, including tax credits, federal bonds and reimbursed job training, said Carmen Pacheco, UpSkill labor program specialist. The department’s goal is to provide holistic support for released prisoners as they reintegrate to society.

Prisoners at the Women’s Prison in Pierre participate in their precision machining class as...
Prisoners at the Women’s Prison in Pierre participate in their precision machining class as part of their certificate program with Lake Area Technical College.(Courtesy of South Dakota Department of Corrections)

“I think of the confidence that I’ve heard these gals have at their graduations — about a future that some of them maybe didn’t see or weren’t even sure they wanted,” Pacheco said. “If we can provide an opportunity for them to offer a living for their families and support themselves while meeting employers’ needs and supporting them through that, that’s our goal.”

The partnership is different from Pheasantland Industries, which employs 227 prisoners to produce products such as road signs, license plates, cabinetry and braille work for the state. Pheasantland Industries provides work experience to prisoners and compensates them between $0.25 and $0.70 an hour.

The technical college partnership does not compensate students for their time, but offers free education and focuses on developing skill sets to be used once they are released.

With the proper training, the needs of in-demand industries could be partially met by the thousands of inmates who are released each year, said Angela Smith, the state DOC associate director of education and programs.

In fiscal year 2021 alone, 3,920 adults were released from the state prison system.

“Employers are coming to the Department of Corrections, asking how many people we can get through these programs and if we can expand,” Smith said. “They’re waiting for our cohorts to get done so they can hire them.”

Programs make reintegration easier with a ‘foot in the door’

That’s a stark contrast compared to most prisoners’ experience when released from the prison system.

Most have no job to return to and have to seek one on their own — while also juggling parole meetings, substance abuse classes or treatment, finding transportation, securing housing, connecting with family again and more.

There is no state law preventing employers from using a “felon box,” requiring formerly incarcerated people to identify their history to apply for a job. But such boxes can immediately remove a candidate from the running, despite their qualifications.

Just because someone has been convicted of a felony doesn’t mean it’s “the end for them,” Smith said.

“To expect someone to figure all this out on their own and not really have any opportunity made available to them is incredibly daunting,” Smith said. “Especially for people who, before they came to prison, had a lifestyle that was funded by illegal activities that got them into prison, it’s a lot easier to think about going back to that lifestyle and reverting back to old habits than going through the struggle of finding a job when an employer will just make them mark that felony box and discard them anyway.”

A 2018 analysis found that rates of employment post-release increase by 12% for incarcerated people who participate in any type of correctional education. And for Browne, it was a relief upon release.

“It eases so much anxiety because it’s a foot in the door already,” Browne said. “I still have to work and show up and prove myself, but the whole ‘I’m a felon and I don’t believe in myself’ is gone.”

Kimberlee Browne uses a brush to clear metal shards from the cutting deck of precision...
Kimberlee Browne uses a brush to clear metal shards from the cutting deck of precision machining equipment at Lake Area Technical College in Watertown on Jan. 20, 2023. Browne was demonstrating the capabilities she learned in a state Department of Corrections program supported by four of the state’s technical colleges.(J.T. Fey/for South Dakota Searchlight)
Education programs impacts families, children & communities

Upon Browne’s release, she spent Christmas with her mother and some of her children for the first time in three years.

Her mother is taking care of Browne’s twin 16-year-old daughters, and the two had lost touch with one another because of Browne’s addiction and prison cycle.

But her mother saw a change in Browne, in part because of the educational program, but also the therapy and personal reflection she was working through. Her mother even offered to drive to Pierre and bring her home to Vermillion before moving to Watertown.

Those connections show that the education program impacts not only inmates’ careers, but their familial connections as well. According to the state DLR, there were 26 children and five grandchildren connected to the eight women in the first precision machining cohort, which graduated in May 2022.

Finding the right students & planning for expansion

Not just anyone should take these classes, Browne said. People serving sentences have to be mentally and emotionally prepared for the challenge, since the work can be frustrating — especially when students are relearning trigonometry many of them haven’t touched for years or never learned at all.

Browne herself had taken similar workforce preparation classes while she served prior sentences, including a certification course to become a flagger in construction zones. But she wasn’t ready to use what she’d learned when released.

“It’s kind of like being sober. People might not be done using or aren’t done going to prison,” Browne said. “I can say that because I’ve been on both sides. It’s a choice you have to make, and I think I’ve made that choice now. I want to hold onto this feeling.”

With the possibility of a new women’s prison being built in Rapid City, Smith sees the potential to expand the partnership. While some other states offer higher education and career and technical courses, South Dakota’s targeted technical education partnership is a unique way to meet several of the state’s needs, Smith added.

“I think there’s a lot more hope and support than there was five to 10 years ago to let success not only be possible after release but let it be the norm,” Smith said.

Browne formed bonds with her classmates and still keeps in touch with many of them. Because of the course, she found her love for helping others again by encouraging them throughout the class. While she will work in Watertown, she’s considering going back to school, possibly completing her precision machining degree or becoming a substance abuse counselor.

“I still have to figure out what I want to be when I grow up,” Browne joked. “If you can find a way to believe in yourself, really anything is possible.”

This article was produced by South Dakota Searchlight, which provides free news and commentary on critical issues facing the state at SouthDakotaSearchlight.Com.