An employment seminar at the Maine State Prison on Wednesday. Credit: Susan Sharon | Maine Public

Call it a potential match made in prison.

A seminar billed as a way to help inmates re-enter Maine’s workforce attracted 120 employers eager to find ways to address a challenging labor shortage in the state.

For some, it marks the first time they’ve ever considered recruiting from this labor pool or even stepping foot in the Maine State Prison. But businesses that have tried it say it has been a resounding success, so far.

Maine Department of Corrections staff thought they would be lucky if they got 60 employers to register. Instead, more than twice that showed up.

After going through a security screening and leaving cellphones and car keys at a checkpoint, employers heard from some of their counterparts about the experience of hiring current and former inmates from Maine’s prison system.

“We started hiring the Bolduc guys because we realized that we had a labor shortage and that we desperately needed help,” says Catherine Robbins-Halsted, a co-owner and manager of Robbins Lumber, a fifth-generation, family-owned sawmill and planing mill in Searsmont with 120 employees.

Halsted says the Department of Corrections reached out to her about possibly hiring inmates from the minimum-security Bolduc unit in Warren through a work release program after hearing her testify on an employment-related bill. She admits she was initially skeptical and nervous about hiring convicted felons, but about six months ago she hired six, and she plans to bring on three more next week.

“Before this, I probably would have said no to looking further at the applicant. I think people went in thinking that they wouldn’t be as good as they are, but they show up for work every day, super polite, a smile on their face. They want to do a good job,” she says.

“Lessons that we’ve learned? Not to judge a book by its cover, first lesson,” says Jay MacDonald, senior operations manager for LaBree’s Bakery in Old Town, which has 200 associates, including about 40 current and former inmates.

MacDonald hires many inmates through a work release program at Mountain View Correctional Center in Charleston, where there is training in carpentry, culinary, small engine repair and other trades. He says it has been a positive experience and a big help to his bakery, which sells products across the country.

“We were pleasantly surprised at the respect shown to management and everyone else by the inmates. The level of intellect — we were also surprised,” he says.

This is music to the ears of Brian Dolloff of Hillendale Farms in Turner, where he says it’s a struggle to find workers who will stick it out in the egg production business. He says the company has been relying on temporary labor to fill immediate needs, but he’s looking to train long-term employees, people who are willing to work hard and move up the ranks like he did.

“We try to become more and more efficient, but at times that means there’s some added labor to it. We have some great people that come in and they love it and they stay, and we have some people that come in and they don’t make it the first break,” he says.

That’s why Dolloff is thinking about a new recruitment strategy — hiring former inmates. Like so many here, he says he’s a believer in second chances.

Ronald Boobar, a Maine State Prison inmate serving a 40-year sentence, will be getting released in about six years. All this positive talk, he says, gives him hope.

“It’s actually emotional for me because there’s a fear of not being successful when you walk out after doing all these years. And to hear employers at least be willing to take a look at hiring an inmate, I just can’t wait for that opportunity,” he says.

But some employers warned of pitfalls. One discussed how some inmates on work release kept pressuring their driver to take them to a convenience store so they could buy beer. They likely were not a good fit for the company’s needs, he said.

Others highlighted the need to set clear expectations and to be aware of the challenge of finding affordable housing and transportation for workers, many of whom may have suspended driver’s licenses.

But Maine State Prison Warden Randall Liberty says these kinds of seminars have the potential to be a game-changer. Maine currently has a recidivism rate of about 70 percent.

“The key here is to reduce the recidivism rate, the rate at which people return to prison. And I think it’s going to benefit the state of Maine overall, and I certainly know it will benefit the individuals that reside here,” he says.

Liberty says having meaningful employment can go a long way toward achieving that goal. Wednesday’s seminar is expected to be the first of many collaborations between the state and the business community.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.

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