For maybe the first time in his life, Toby Atha feels like he has what he needs to turn his life around.
After attending a few programs while serving his sentence at the Jackson County Jail, the 40-year-old Seymour man plans to add one more thing to that list before his June 25 release.
[sc:text-divider text-divider-title=”Story continues below gallery” ]Click here to purchase photos from this gallery
Atha is one of eight inmates selected to attend an eight-week course to earn a production technician certification as part of a new program for inmates.
“The ultimate goal is for them to have a job when they get out of here,” said Sheriff Rick Meyer, who helped organize the program.
Meyer, the Jackson County Industrial Development Corp. and industry representatives came together to work with McDowell Education Center to bring the program to the jail. It’s funded through the state’s adult education program.
Workforce coordinator Jackie Hill said JCIDC had partnered with Jennings County for a workforce training grant but struggled to meet some lower income guidelines. That’s when the group approached Meyer and Jail Commander Chris Everhart to see if inmates could be included.
“We reached out to the jail because of some of the initiatives they were doing there,” she said. “Everybody deserves a second chance, and they just feel like they’re labeled and they don’t know where to start. I think this is a way to offer a second chance.”
The inmates — four men and four women — are taken twice a week to the Jackson County Learning Center in Seymour, where a manufacturing lab is available for hands-on learning.
Everhart selected inmates he felt have earned the opportunity based on their low risk and good behavior and those he thought would commit to it. Jailers accompany the class, which takes place after hours at the center.
Mike Riley, who worked at Cummins for 30 years and retired as an industrial electrician in 1999, instructs the group. He also has experience teaching as he led classes at C4 in Columbus for 18 years. C4 is a skilled trade learning program for high school students.
Participants will learn about manufacturing, maintenance, safety, how to use measurement tools, calipers, basic electricity, electronics, hydraulics and more.
One of the biggest pieces of the program is that it does not stop with the certification, but with a job interview.
Hill said nine local companies have promised to at least interview inmates who earn the certification.
A recent meeting between industry leaders and service providers was well-attended, Hill said. That followed a survey earlier in the year when companies expressed the willingness to hire people with criminal records.
“I was pleased with the response we got and that we have that interest,” she said. “We’re going to be looking at those inmates who are being release before their certification and do an interview process.”
Kimberly May, 38, of Austin said she is thankful for the course and hopes it helps her get a job.
She has been in the jail for a little more than three months and expects to be released July 28.
“I figured I’d give it a try,” she said. “I think it will most definitely help me get a job later.”
May has worked at a few manufacturing facilities and hopes the certification will complement her experience.
Knowing a company will give him an interview, Atha said he feels like he would have a major step completed toward success. In the past, he said he would slip back into old habits after being released from custody because he did not land a job quickly enough.
Atha worked at Aisin in Seymour as a press operator for two years, which was the longest he worked anywhere, he said.
He said he enjoyed the fast-paced environment of manufacturing, but he eventually relapsed into drug use.
“To have an interview and a job when I leave here, that would be a big deal for me and for a lot of guys,” he said. “In the past, I failed because I needed a job, and it didn’t come quick enough. I didn’t get a check soon enough, and sometimes, not having that led me back to jail.”
Everhart, who has worked at the jail for 20 years, said that’s a classic example for many inmates. Having an interview completed before they leave would be a tremendous relief to many.
He recently spoke with an inmate who went through a job searching process where he became anxious about it.
Everhart said the man felt like he shouldn’t even try because he would have to discuss his past, worry about being presentable and more.
“If they know they only have to show up to their job when they’re out, that’s a huge step for them,” he said. “Getting a job seems simple for a lot of people, but for some, it’s a really hard thing.”
Hill said the organizations hope the program will help ease those barriers and also hopes it will grow.
“We’re hoping this will be an ongoing thing,” she said. “The funding is there, but it depends on how successful it is and how it’s received.”
If successful, the course could help grow the county’s workforce pool as companies compete for workers. The county’s unemployment rate fell to 2.4% in April. That compares to the state’s 3.4% and nation’s 3.6% rates.
Atha thinks a certification in hand and a job interview would give him a major advantage as he tries to correct course.
“I don’t want to come back here (jail),” he said. “I don’t have time for foolishness. I don’t want to hurt anybody. I don’t want to make any enemies, and I don’t want to commit anymore crimes.”
What he does want is a chance.
“I think having a job walking out of here would provide a lot of hope,” he said.