In a classroom with bars on the windows and views of the razor wire that surrounds the Detroit Reentry Center, inmate Mathew Hernandez is learning how to safely remove asbestos and lead-based paint, skills he hopes will land him a construction job when he’s released.
“I want to be a legitimate citizen. I want to … actually be an asset to the community, instead of a leech,” said Hernandez, 33, whose addiction to pain pills following a workplace injury culminated in a guilty plea to robbery charges in late 2015.
With the unemployment rate at 76% among newly released prisoners in Wayne County, the City of Detroit is using a $4.5-million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to prepare inmates such as Hernandez for jobs in environmental work, culinary arts and fork-lift operation. According to Mayor Mike Duggan, all these fields are hiring workers in Detroit.
“We went and looked at where employers were hiring right now,” Duggan said.
Asbestos abatement is at historic highs in Michigan and much of that work is in Detroit, where the city is overseeing the largest blight-removal initiative in the country and has demolished more than 10,000 properties since Duggan took office in 2014.
The city is also generating work for lead inspectors and abatement contractors. Duggan said landlords must have their properties inspected annually for lead, and deteriorating lead-based paint must be abated.
“These jobs are keeping our kids healthy,” Duggan said, also noting that the city’s restaurants and warehouses are in need of workers.
Back in the prison on Detroit’s east side, lead abatement instructor Marty Thomson assures the seven inmates taking his three-day class that they will find jobs.
“We have a lot of work out there,” he said on a recent Friday afternoon. At the end of his class, inmates can take the state exam for lead certification. They then move on to five days of asbestos abatement training and can apply for asbestos-abatement accreditation from the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Inmates who go through the Detroit Environmental Employment Program (DEEP) also learn cardiopulmonary resuscitation and hazardous materials handling.
The DEEP training saves contractors thousands of dollars per worker in training costs and allows ex-inmates to step right into a job.
“The pay is very good. This is the first step in your successful re-entry,” Sam Marvin, who oversees the program from Duggan’s office, tells inmates in the lead abatement class.
According to the city, DEEP graduates can earn as much as $22 to $25 an hour doing asbestos abatement, while supervisors can earn $33 an hour.
The other jobs the inmates are training for may pay less, but the city says they should earn more than minimum wage.
Asbestos must be removed before a building is demolished, and MIOSHA, the state workplace safety agency, requires asbestos abatement contractors to be licensed, and workers to be accredited.
A Free Press investigation last year found many contractors lacked either a license or failed to use accredited workers, and some contractors preyed on vulnerable workers, including non-English speakers, immigrants, ex-cons and the homeless, to remove asbestos without protective clothing, respirators and water to wet it.
There is no known safe level of exposure to asbestos, which can cause lung disease and cancer, although symptoms may not become apparent for decades.
Exposure to lead is also harmful, particularly to the developing brain and nervous system of fetuses and children under 6. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, deteriorating lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust are the most hazardous sources of lead for U.S. children.
The city began offering the behind-bars training in October 2016. When Duggan visited the Detroit Reentry Center last year, he said an inmate told him it was first time he had received job training, and he wished he hadn’t gone to prison to get it.
“If Detroit’s comeback is going to be successful, we need everybody’s talents and this is a way to make sure we use the talents of people who have paid their debt,” Duggan said in an interview.
Robert Ballenger, 36 of Detroit, said he believes he will have the skills to do lead and asbestos abatement when he gets out of prison in the next few weeks.
Ballenger did 12 years for armed robbery and felony firearms charges and was released in February 2015. He ended up at the Reentry Center in September 2016 for parole violations.
He said he believes he will have “all the tools” to be in construction “tied to doing asbestos abatement and lead removal. … It’s a chance to re-acclimate myself to society.”
Sentenced to a year in prison, Hernandez, of Detroit, was released in August 2016 only to end up in the Reentry Center weeks later, also for parole violations.
Hernandez said he realizes convicted felons can have trouble finding work.
But he believes demolition contractors are “looking for people who want to work, who are willing to work. I’m one of those guys.”