Building Solid Futures


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By Robert Peterson

What does it cost to keep a person in prison? According to the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, the average cost of incarceration per inmate each year in Nebraska is over $27,000.

A study funded by the United States Department of Education found that participation in correctional education programs lowers the likelihood of reincarceration by 29 percent and that for every dollar spent on education, more than two dollars in reduced prison costs would be returned to taxpayers. The Federal Bureau of Prisons found that inmates who participate in vocational and apprenticeship training are 33 percent less likely to reoffend.

These statistics led to the establishment of Prairie Gold Homes, a new nonprofit corporation that operates an innovative job-training program in collaboration with the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services. The Prairie Gold Homes job-training program teaches inmates construction skills, enhancing their employment prospects upon release and helping them stay out of prison.

According to the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, 35 percent of female inmates and 60 percent of the males entering the correctional system do not have a verified high school or GED diploma. With significant educational needs and few marketable skills, opportunities to make a living wage legally upon release are severely limited.

“In my experience, 85 percent of inmates have never had a meaningful job,” said John McGovern, deputy director and general manager of Cornhusker State Industries, which helps inmates gain skills to successfully re-enter society. “Developing marketable skills is essential if they are to succeed outside of the correctional setting.”

The Prairie Gold Homes job-training program was developed by a team of partners from the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, the local education community and the construction sector. It has set high standards and demands strong commitment from its participants. In order to participate, inmates must earn a high school diploma or GED and post an acceptable score on a test of core education requirements. Classroom training includes demonstration and hands-on learning opportunities while focusing on job safety, tools, reading blueprints, communication and employability skills.

What makes the program especially unique is that after successfully completing the classroom requirements, participants can begin work at a construction site located at Cornhusker State Industries. There they build modular homes under close supervision of a production manager. In this phase of the program, inmates are treated as they would be in a typical construction work environment with expectations similar to those in any workplace. They learn how to take constructive criticism, work together and control their anger.

“Once I get the workers onsite, I approach them with a no-nonsense attitude,” said Hugh Robinson, Prairie Gold Homes production manager. “I treat them equally, criticism and all, and by doing that I hope I’m showing them how to get along with others, and maybe have a different perspective about their lives. They can see that their lives might be different and want their lives to be different.”

Participants who successfully complete the training program receive a certificate that is recognized nationally by employers in the construction industry. If they wish, this certification allows them to pursue advanced training once they are released. Even if they don’t end up in construction, the training experience will prepare them for a host of other good jobs.

“This program offers an excellent opportunity to acquire skills in an industry where they can fit,” John McGovern added. “Many construction companies are more willing to employ ex-inmates than employers in other industries.”

Labor Department projections indicate employment of construction workers is expected to grow in the U.S. by 20 percent by 2018, which is much faster than the average for many other occupations. Experienced workers and workers with specialized skills will have the upper hand in competition for jobs. Good-paying jobs.

In Nebraska the estimated average monthly earnings for newly hired construction workers is over $2,800. Experienced workers make an average of $3,200 per month.

While an inmate with the Nebraska Department of Corrections, John Soby helped to build 15 Prairie Gold homes. Upon his release, he was hired by a custom-home builder where he worked for one year, putting his new skills to work. Today, John owns his own contracting business and supervises a small crew.

“I learned a lot building those first houses,” John said. “When I got out, those skills helped me to land a steady job and get back on my feet. Prairie Gold Homes can open a lot of doors. It’s a great opportunity to make something of yourself and turn your life around.”

The Prairie Gold Homes program, originally named Bar None Housing, evolved from a pilot project begun in 2001 by the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority and the nonprofit Nebraska Housing Resource, which included leadership from the Homebuilders Association of Lincoln. Additional collaborators included the Nebraska Department of Economic Development, the Fannie Mae Foundation, the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, Cornhusker State Industries, the Federal Home Loan Bank of Topeka and private modular home producer Vantage Pointe Homes.

The primary goal of the pilot project was to use inmate labor to produce affordable, energy-efficient housing for Nebraska communities. Over the course of the next eight years, the organization produced 52 modular housing units, which were sold and sited in 18 communities throughout central and eastern Nebraska.

In 2009, after completing a situational and business analysis, the collaborators decided that while elements of the program were very successful, the housing market could not support a for-profit business model. Because the project showed great success in generating a very low reincarceration rate among inmate participants—3 percent versus 21 percent for nonprogram inmates—a focus on strengthening the vocational training aspect of the program and helping even more graduates succeed outside the correctional system had broad appeal.

In 2009 Prairie Gold Homes was incorporated as a Nebraska nonprofit corporation with a volunteer board of directors. The board includes President Byron Fischer, former USDA-State Rural Housing director; Vice President Greg Shinaut, Black Hills Energy and member of SCC Building Construction Advisory Board; Secretary DiAnna Schimek, former Nebraska State Senator; Treasurer Jan Knobel, retired, USDA-Single Family Housing & Small Business loan officer; Barbara Brunkow, assistant ombudsman, Nebraska Ombudsman’s Office; Gary Hill, international corrections consultant; Andrew Hove, retired, FDIC director and Nebraska banker, current member of NeighborWorks Lincoln Board of Directors; and Bob Rentfro, builder/owner, Cherry Hill Construction.

While the primary goal of the new Prairie Gold Homes organization is to help inmates build solid futures and stay out of prison, the production of new affordable housing is another value-added benefit of the program.

The modular houses produced as part of the Prairie Gold Homes training experience are built with high-quality, name-brand materials that meet or exceed Nebraska building standards. The homes are energy-efficient, low maintenance and offer universal design features like extra-wide doorways and lower-positioned light switches. With additions like a roll-in shower and lever door handles, the homes can be a cost-effective housing solution for seniors or people with other accessibility challenges. The homes are also valuable to organizations creating supportive living complexes of various types.

When sold, the homes are transported to the developer’s building site for placement over basements or crawlspaces and final finishing work by local contractors.

Bob Rentfro is a Lincoln, Neb., builder and member of the new Prairie Gold Homes board. He purchased several modular units when the pilot project was operational and sited them in surrounding communities. He used local workers to construct the foundations and for electrical, plumbing, heating and other finishing work. He spent about $35,000 on local workers and materials to site each home. “It’s a nice infusion into the local economy,” Rentfro said.

While the basic Prairie Gold home costs about $40,000 and has a little over 1,000 square feet, Rentfro has added extra rooms, decks and garages to his units. “The homes are very well made and extremely energy-efficient,” Rentfro said. He owns a unit southeast of Lincoln, which he has rented out for more than two years. “My tenant had lived in an older house where her monthly heating bill was $350. Total utility costs were reduced to only about $100 per month in the Prairie Gold home.”

Since the pilot project began in 2001, over 50 Prairie Gold homes have been sited in communities throughout eastern and central Nebraska. The homes generate new property taxes that support schools and public services as well as provide housing for community residents who work at local jobs, shop at local businesses and often have children who attend local schools.

“It’s really a win-win program,” said Robert Peterson, executive director and general counsel for Prairie Gold Homes. “We are helping inmates build a solid future for themselves and for their families, while increasing Nebraska’s supply of affordable, energy efficient housing. It’s a great way to maximize our resources and invest in our own Prairie Gold.”


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