By EILEEN MCCLORY, Record-Courier Reporter
Inmates in the Portage County jail now have another work option while they serve their sentences locally: working at Paris Healthcare Linens in Ravenna.
The jail, working with Portage County Commissioner Sabrina Christian-Bennet, Common Pleas Judge Becky Doherty, and multiple area agencies, is allowing inmates to work at the company in Ravenna if they meet certain criteria set by jail administrators, are approved by the judge and meet the criteria to be hired by the company. The program has been in effect since October. Currently, there are between seven and nine people working in the program.
Last year, Christian-Bennett said she got a call from Sharon Engle, director of HR at Paris Healthcare Linens Services, which is based in Jefferson County, Pennsylvania. The company was already working with the local jail in that state to hire inmates, Christian-Bennett said, and they wanted to start a similar program with their facility in Ravenna.
“Not only are we employing people while they’re incarcerated, they’re also able to start paying down fines, if they have child support orders, they could continue to contribute to their children, they can send money home to secure housing if they had housing when they left,” Christian-Bennett said. “It just seemed like a win-win.”
Engle said Paris Linens was facing a labor shortage, as a lot of companies are, and expanding the potential labor force was good for their company and the community.
“We hope other employers will do the same,” she said.
While many local companies have hired felons after they’re released from jail, Christian-Bennett said this is the first time in the county a company is hiring people who are incarcerated. The jail also allows some inmates who had jobs when they were arrested to keep them while they are in jail.
Christian-Bennett called the jail, Doherty and OhioMeansJobs, a government agency that works with both companies and those looking for work. Once they were all on board, the jail began its selection and Paris began interviewing candidates.
Inmates who participate in the program are nonviolent offenders. Doak said his office does an extensive screening when recommending inmates to the company.
Mandy Berardinelly, workforce administrator for OhioMeansJobs, said she and co-worker Jarrid Mckintosh faced multiple problems in getting the workers to their jobs. First, there had to be busing, she said. Inmates needed clothing other than their jail uniforms so they could work in the factory. Then, they had to figure out how the workers were going to get food while they were working.
“Jarrid packs their lunch every day so that when they get to work they have something to eat,” Berardinelly said. “We really are trying to remove every barrier that is in their way to be successful.”
Some of the inmates didn’t have Social Security cards, driver’s licenses, or birth certificates, Berardinelly said, so they had to help the inmates acquire those.
The funding for the food, transportation, clothing and documentation was provided through a $135,000 two-year grant meant to help people through the opioid crisis. The grant is federal money, but it is issued through the state. The agency gets $70,000 up front, Berardinelly said.
Doherty is the only judge participating and making the referrals. Probation contacts her to sign work releases and be part of the program. She said it was important to help set up former offenders for success.
“It sets them up, hopefully, for life once they’re released from incarceration, again, whether they’re still on probation or whether their probation is terminated, it gives them the ability to do something productive and not go back into the same habit,” Doherty said.
Inmates earn between $11 and $12 per hour for a 40-hour per week job with occasional overtime, but if they have fines, court costs or child support, that money is taken out of their paychecks, Kelly said.
Anyone working at Paris is drug-screened both at the company and in the jail, Kelly said, and inmates are screened through an X-ray machine once they return to ensure that no drugs are taken into the jail.
Doak and Kelly said it is too early to see what the rate of people reoffending once they got out of jail, but Kelly said he had already seen some success.
One offender, Kelly said, was previously the “king of Narcan,” but has since gotten clean after working at Paris. He’s now out of jail and still working.