"This program and the people in the program have saved my life."
There are many hurdles to lowering the amount of Oklahomans in prison.
Reducing the rate of mass incarceration is just half of the battle. And based on some accounts, it may not even be half.
A report released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that 62% of formerly incarcerated adults were not employed within 6 months of release. That number increases to 65% by year four.
This trend of joblessness — which only increases the chances of adults returning to prison — is something the Project BUILD program at Francis Tuttle Technology Center aims to stop. This program — which partners with the Oklahoma Department of CareerTech and the Department of Corrections — offers construction training to adults nearing their exit from the criminal justice system. It gives them a path into a high-growth and high-demand industry.
Out of respect for privacy, Project BUILD students cannot be named in this piece. But some offered accounts of their time in the program.
“I can’t believe how much I have learned,” said one Project BUILD student. “I built a table all by myself. I got my forklift training certificate, and now I can get a job with just that certificate. I have gained so much self-confidence from this program. I love it here! I’m just so happy that I got to come.”
Construction jobs are in high demand as the OKC metro grows. Project BUILD students gain skills in general carpentry, framing and drywall installation, construction terminology, construction math, and safety.
“Students gain confidence in themselves, and that can be used in every aspect of their life,” Shawn Schmid of Project BUILD said. “They also learn what’s required to do construction, even if they choose not to go into it for a career. They learn how to work as a team and with others.”
According to data from Project BUILD, 84% of students who completed the program gained employment upon release in the 2021-22 Fiscal Year. These jobs add to the workforce of Oklahoma and provide an opportunity for formerly incarcerated adults that they can use to change their life.
“Graduates of the program always tell me that it gave them a chance to better themselves, change their future, and provide for their families,” Academic Tutor Missy Hoppe said. “This is a win for our students and our entire community.”
In 2021, 62 men and women benefited from attending Project BUILD. And the Spring-Summer class of this year stood at 37.
Those students did not only learn construction skills. Life skills and employability skills are taught to improve their chances of success when they get out into the real world.
“Just having the construction skills isn’t enough,” Hoppe said. “We try to support the whole student.”
Being on time, organization, communication, and building emotional resiliency all help secure a job.
Though the program has expanded recently, the folks at Project BUILD are always looking for ways to increase opportunities for students. Grants from Bank of America, Arnall, the Inasmuch Foundation, and others have eliminated obstacles to students completing the program, such as clothing and transportation.
“I have had a rough life,” a Project BUILD student said. “I believed for so long that I didn’t matter, that I was nothing. I have been in the state penitentiary for 23 years. I will be 47 soon; that’s almost half of my life. This program and the people in the program have saved my life. I know that I am worthy. I know I’m someone special. I have my name on a certificate, and that means more to me than anything else.”