“It’s hard to adjust when you have been gone as long as I have,” says Amber McEntire “I don’t even know how to work that phone in your hand, but I know how to build electrical circuits.”
For the past 15 years, Amber McEntire has been inside looking out as the world around her changed. During her sentence, news reports were showing cell phones transforming into mini-computers that fit in the palm of your hand, two royal weddings, the Chicago Cubs ending their 108-year drought and winning the world series, and the nation elected its first black president.
“Having a felony conviction is extremely hard, especially for a female,” says Senior Warden Jennifer Brown, Lockhart Correctional Facility. “We want to make sure they leave here prepared for the outside world. It is important for them to take care of their family and find a home. Just those basic needs make a difference.”
Through a unique partnership with the Lockhart Correctional Facility, Austin Community College’s (ACC) Continuing Education Division is stepping in to provide inmates like McEntire customized training and certification in some of the most in-demand careers in Central Texas from manufacturing to logistics and welding.
“We have a tremendous opportunity to reach people where they are. That even means reaching them here at the correctional facility,” says Don Tracy, ACC Continuing Education Corporate and Community Education director. “The training helps them take the next step.”
The first cohort graduated in August 2019. Each student received national certification in manufacturing — a skill set that prepares students for careers as a frontline operator or supervisor roles in manufacturing.
“We all have an interest in having the most skilled workforce possible,” says Tracy. “Almost all of these women are coming back into our communities. By providing them with the skills they need, we can allow them to get living-wage jobs when they re-enter.”
For Tracy, his connection runs deep for re-entry. His mother was a teacher at a women’s prison in Huntsville in the 1970s. His father served as the superintendent for the Windham school system — the state’s prison education system.
“It is a great blessing for me to be able to continue that work,” says Tracy. “These are real people we are working with here. They got in trouble, got caught, and are here, but they are just like us. If we can come alongside them and show support; we are so much better off.”
Students in the program commit four hours a day, three days a week, for four months to complete the certification program.
“We would work all day and then spend all evening in class, but it didn’t matter. We had the drive to do it, and we wanted it badly,” says student Misty Campbell. “We are labeled, we have a stigma. This is an opportunity that gives us a chance to be able to go out there and know that there is a job waiting for us.”
“We can’t get on the internet. You can’t just pick up a phone and say ‘hey, help me with this.’ A lot of us ladies don’t live in the same dorm. We live on different sides of this unit. So, we learned to work together when we were in class.,” says Campbell.
“These students crossed cultural and racial boundaries to come together. They worked as a team,” says Tracy. “It’s so important to be able to work in teams, problem-solve, and work together because that is exactly the type of skill they will need on the outside.”
“I can say in all my years of being incarcerated I have never seen anything like this,” says Mary Harris. “I have been locked up for five years, and this is the first class they have given us that was to better our life on the outside, not just look good on parole. They told us on the first day, ‘If you give 100 percent, we will give you 100 percent.’ So, when we get out of here, there is no way we are coming back.’”
Shortly after completing the program, Harris completed her sentence, was released, and returned home to Tyler, Texas.
“I’m not the person I was when I came here, and I don’t plan on going back,” says Harris.
But once the women are released, the support from ACC won’t stop.
“One of our students got a surprise early release but she still wanted to complete the program. So we drove up to Midland to proctor her exams,” says Tracy. “Making the drive was an easy decision when you have someone who is dedicated to completing the program and build her future.”
Through a collaboration with the Texas Workforce Commission, the CE Division helps connect its graduates with jobs upon their release.
“ It is so important for us to have that, not knowing which direction to turn to, we have a support system,” says Harris.
A new cohort began classes this month.
“My hope is to not only expand the program at Lockhart Correctional Facility but to expand into juvenile facilities and other adult facilities in the region,” says Tracy.