ALBION — With unemployment in Noble County at just 2.7% in March, area employers are always working to find new workers.

That’s led to an mutually beneficial partnership for local firms with the minimum security Chain O’ Lakes Correctional Facility in Albion. Companies need workers. Inmates need work experience as they transition back to normal day-to-day life.

The Chain O’Lakes Correctional Facility in Albion is one of four minimum-level security facilities within the Indiana Department of Corrections that houses men incarcerated for non-violent crimes. Chain O’ Lakes has joined forces with Leaders Staffing and local employers to prepare and put motivated men with convictions to work, filling jobs and helping them succeed in making the transition from incarceration back into the community.

Since the work release program was launched at Chain O’ Lakes in 2011, men have been hired by local firms including Carlex, Dexter Axle, Busche and LSC Communications. More are expected to get on board with the program soon.

Rhonda Thomas-Hardy, administrative assistant to the warden, says the work release program has been very successful and that it works much like any other job placement agency.

“We began small in 2011 and have expanded to a 38-bed work release facility that opened at the end of January,” Thomas-Hardy explained.

The correctional facility provides dormitory-style housing to its residents.

The work release program kicked off locally with the placement of five men at C&A Tool. Eventually, more employers jumped on board. Carlex, with a plant in Ligonier, has hired more workers through the program than any other local company thus far. Larry Gough, human resources manager at Carlex, says the program has been great.

“It’s not a bad gig,” Gough said. “The workers we have met have brought in no drama. They get to work, focus on the job and want to be working.”

Since giving the work release program a try, Carlex has brought in 22 workers. It employs more than 400 people in all. Gough expects five more workers currently on work release will become permanent employees later this month.

Only four of those hired from work release were unable to take permanent positions because of a long commute from their permanent places of residence.

“We had a man from Kentucky who so badly wanted to stay on permanently, but when incarceration ended, he couldn’t find a place to live,” Gough explained.

Thomas-Hardy echoed Gough’s satisfaction with the work release program, noting that Carlex changed its hiring policy. It used to require the company to wait until an offender was released from incarceration to offer a permanent position. Now, the company can choose to offer a permanent job after a worker completes 90 days as a temporary employee, whether they remain incarcerated or not.

This makes work release placement policies the same as those for hiring a worker through any traditional staffing agency. This change, according to Thomas-Hardy, has provided great motivation to men in the program because they know their job can become permanent and support their transition back into the community.

“It is all hands on deck here,” said Thomas-Hardy. “We put a lot of work into screening the men. Before they are ever allowed into work release they have to meet eligibility requirements and will undergo extensive one-on-one work with a case manager.”

Some of the training the men receive is provided by programs under the Hoosier Initiative for Re-Entry, a collaboration between the Department of Workforce Development, Department of Correction, employers and their case managers. Other training opportunities may also be provided by Ivy Tech and other educators in the region.

Three of the men Carlex hired through work release say they are grateful for the chance to prove themselves. Jason Jones took a brief break from the production line at Carlex to say that the programs at Chain O’ Lakes, to help men get a second chance, are a good thing.

Jones landed a permanent job at the facility after participating in the work release program. He was previously incarcerated at the low-level security facility for a non-violent offense.

“Being able to get training on CNC or welding, and participate in the work release program, those are really good things for the guys,” Jones said.

Gough said that the pre-screening done within the program at Chain O’ Lakes is critical. It has helped to win over the V.P. of Human Resources at Carlex to support this program, too.

“We have no reservations,” said Gough. “Only two of the 22 we have hired were terminated due to performance-related issues. That’s only 10% that didn’t work out. That’s pretty good.”

In addition to the soft skills that workers are provided to help prepare them for interviews and to learn effective communication skills, Chain O’ Lakes provides transportation to make sure workers meet their obligations to employers.

Thomas-Hardy encourages more employers, including those in Allen County, to explore work release to attract and retain workers. When asked if he would recommend work release to other Noble County employers, Gough hesitated, but only briefly.

“Well, we don’t want others to take the employees we may want,” Gough said, tongue-in-cheek. “Seriously, though, it’s been a program that’s been very encouraging to my team. We are happy to play a part in changing their lives.”

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