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High-tech training is coming to Ohio prisons

Two women sit side-by-side. Both are smiling, one is holding up a graduation tassle.
Kathryn Mobley
2023 DCI Graduate Janie Martin and her niece Danielle Sheffield sit together after the ceremony. Martin earned CDCA and customer service certificates. She wants to eventually become a social worker.

Last November at the Dayton Correctional Institution, Sinclair Community College president Steven Johnson recognized more than one hundred women draped in black gowns and caps. Tonya Anderson was one of them.

She earned a customer service certificate through Sinclair’s Prison Education Program. A day after graduating, the state released Anderson from DCI. She now works in retail in Clermont County.

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) has offered free, basic education since 1972.

But Anderson says, nowadays, most workers need more advanced skills to land a decent paying job.

Anderson wants the ODRC to update its programs by offering more high-tech training at all 28 Ohio prisons.

“We don't have the proper things to get us prepared for that,” said Anderson. “We don't have the proper equipment or database or anything.”

An influx of jobs

Every year until 2028, it’s estimated Ohio’s economy will have more than 685,000 job openings, according to the Department of Job and Family Services. Many will require advanced technical skills like software and web development, database and cybersecurity.

Anderson says most of her fellow graduates earned general, soft skill certificates, like customer service. She wishes she could have gotten something that would have better prepared her for the thousands of high-paying tech jobs expected to land in Ohio from companies like Joby, Intel, Google, DSV and Path Robotics.
“I did not have access to that through Sinclair because there's nothing high-tech that's coming through the prison system,” recalled Anderson.

New opportunities

The ODRC is working to provide exactly the sort of training Anderson is talking about.

“We are providing training in the 5G broadband sector for men and women. That program is offered by Ashland University at our Richland and Belmont facilities–male populations and Northeast Reintegration Center and is female,” explained Jennifer Sanders, school superintendent of the Ohio Central School System, where she oversees all prison education programs.

Sanders says the certificate program qualifies ex-offenders to enter the 5G broadband industry. Plus, inmates are trained to work on cell towers and the Warren County Career Center is teaching Advanced Manufacturing at the Warren Correctional Institution.

ODRC has teamed up with the Office of Workforce Transformation in Jobs and Family Services and its education partners to develop more hi-tech training programs for all inmates.

“Ohio releases somewhere around 18,000 people a year, and we believe that workforce is going to be extremely important in providing for the employment needs of our community, especially in this sector of the job market,” said Sanders.

Other barriers

Not everyone can get into these advanced classes, though. There are limited open spots in each course and inmates who are closer to being released are chosen first.

Plus, inmates have to pay for some of these high-tech courses. The ODRC says if they don’t personally have the money, they can now apply for a Pell Grant. Last July, Congress reinstated access to these federal funds for inmates.

Anderson is grateful for the training she got while incarcerated at DCI. She advises all inmates to take advantage of as many education programs as they can.

“Whether it was a college program or just something that's going to challenge you. If you want to become a better version of yourself, do something outside your comfort zone,” said Anderson.  

She’s optimistic ODRC’s new tech courses will help them do that.

Kathryn Mobley is an Education and Politics Reporter at Ohio Newsroom member station WYSO in Dayton.