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Inmate to journeyman? It's possible through one of a kind Department of Corrections program in Jackson

Posted at 7:42 PM, Sep 29, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-30 10:50:06-04

JACKSON, Mich. — They look like your typical journeymen, but these men are actually inmates. They’re part of a special program aimed at giving incarcerated men a potential opportunity of a lifetime, a second chance.

“I’m trying to accomplish myself as learning a skill and a trade. Something that I can pursue upon my release and not come back to a situation like this and just being successful upon my release,” Scott Steffes said.

He’s one of a handful of men trying to become tree trimmers after their time in prison through the only training program of its kind within the Department of Corrections system in the country.

“This is an amazing program,” Steffes said.

Jeff Gunnells had been doing tree work for about 25 years.

“I was a tutor here,” he said.

When he found himself behind bars, this program gave him new life.

“If the state hadn’t decided to do this, I have no idea what my life would look like,” he said. “But I know what it looks like now. I have a retirement. I have health care. I have a great job, and different doors of opportunity keep continue to open because of people in my corner.”

Gunnells is now a journeyman trimmer and an instructor at DTE’s Tree Trim Academy. He’s also an International Society of Arboriculture Certified Arborist and has several Truckload Carriers Association credentials.

“None of this would have happened had I not come here for this program,” he said.

MDOC Vocational Program
Corey Boerner (left) and Jeff Gunnells (right) talking to inmates (not pictured) at tree trimming program

His former bunkmate, Corey Boerner, also came back to the Parnall Correctional Facility Vocational Village. They are here to talk to another group of potential tree trimmers.

“To give everybody a second chance that thought they didn’t have a second chance as myself, we were told so much going into being incarcerated about these programs, that program after program we hear something about this, and it’s like, ‘alright, is it actually going to happen?’ And, then it did. Where I’m at today, because of this program, is life changing,” he said.

The program isn’t for everyone. The men apply to get in. They do vocational testing and the Michigan Department of Corrections have them come in within a year of their release.

“They live in an environment here with other students in the vocational village,” he said. “They are very focused on their goal, very focused on their training.”

After their training is complete, they’re put into the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Union as an apprentice.

Michigan Department of Corrections tree trimming program
Two men practicing their tree trimming vocation

DTE Energy has been lucky enough to offer job placement for 100% of their graduates Terrell Lockhart says, a local resource development manager .

“For the nine that are still here, it’s monumentally life changing. I mean, these guys are supporting their families, starting other businesses, becoming supervisors within the trade and a host of other opportunities that are set before them,” he said.

A win-win for all parties involved.

“They can be really successful and contribute, so it’s a great combination of a business need and a community need, and I think it’s something that more and more companies should look at how they connect and partner with the MDOC,” DTE Energy Vice President of Distribution Operations Ryan Stowe said.

The program has had 24 graduates since its launch in 2019.

About 90% of their graduates have remained out of prison.

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