Article by Judy Stringer with crainscleveland.com
Inmates from Grafton Correctional Institute, Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction employees, reLink medical employees and staff from True Freedom Enterprises are seen in the reLink warehouse.
Ray Dalton often challenges guests of Twinsburg Township-based reLink Medical to pick out the handful of Grafton Correctional Center inmates among 20 or so employees fluttering around his warehouse on any given day.
“No one can tell them apart,” he said. “When the inmates get here, they put on a reLink T-shirt. They look like us, they talk like us and they work like us. “
“And, if I’m really honest about it, productivity from this socioeconomic workforce is actually better. They call off less. They show up more. They work harder, and they don’t argue about what color socks they have to wear. They just want a job. They want a future.”
Dalton co-founded reLink in 2015, bringing to the used medical equipment aggregator a decade-old re-entry employment partnership between his family charity, the Dalton Foundation, and prison programs at Cleveland-based True Freedom Ministries and Broken Chains Ministry in Akron. The program started at Dalton’s former company PartsSource Inc. and was ingrained into the management objectives at reLink, where today 30% of employees are former inmates.
It was this history of being a “well-known second-chance employer,” he said, that gave rise to ReLink’s current involvement as a job-training site for men approaching release from a prison in Grafton.
“Basically our program expanded from full-time re-entry employees who were finished with their sentence,” Dalton said, “to people who were still serving their time and are brought from the prison into our workforce.”
ReLink, the Dalton Foundation, True Freedom Ministries and the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (ODRC) officially launched their Work Force Development Collaborative in early 2019. In this program, minimum security inmates from Grafton who are six months or less from their scheduled release are placed in an externship at the Enterprise Parkway warehouse.
Dalton Foundation executive director Barbara Campbell said the inmates have to have graduated from one of True Freedom’s intensive programs, completed a pre-release vocational program and be approved for “community approved statuses” by ODRC before being placed at the company. Along with vetting externs, ODRC trained reLink management and staff on safety and security protocols.
ReLink’s role, Campbell said, is to provide job skills, such as certifications in Microsoft and on forklift, weighing and packaging machines. True Freedom provides transportation and ongoing “life skills” training, ranging from how to balance a checkbook and pay bills to how to dress for work and greet someone appropriately.
“All of these things that we often take for granted that everyone knows how to do,” she said. “But when people go into a prison at 17 or 18 years old, they have not learned a lot of those things.”
Dalton said 19 Grafton inmates have been through the program to date. Only one man “bombed out,” because, Dalton said, he just didn’t want to put in the work. The inmates, like all reLink personnel, are expected to meet productivity goals and earn a free lunch when they do so.
The company has hired three of the externs full time upon their release. Excluding the dropout, the others are employed in positions earning above minimum wage, according to Dalton.
“Recidivism costs the state of Ohio about $38,000 per person per year,” he said. “If you think about the 18 men who have been through this program successfully, we already are saving the state hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
More importantly, Dalton added, are the lives that are changed. Getting individuals out of the prison system and gainfully employed has a positive impact not only on that one person but entire families and often generations that follow, he said.
While six to eight Grafton inmates currently work at reLink daily, Dalton said the program could accommodate up to 12 a day. In addition, he is currently working with the Grafton officials on an extended opportunity in which reLink would set up a medical equipment harvesting site inside the prison.
“We go through about 1 million pounds of scrap a year,” he said. “These are things that come in broken or can’t be repaired or reused, and because we have zero landfill policy with our clients, we tear these items down to the most natural environment. That is something we can train to be done offsite.”
He estimated the harvesting operation would provide daily job training and work experience for another 18 to 20 inmates.
Dalton ultimately hopes the success of programs like these will encourage CEOs and hiring managers around Northeast Ohio to draw from the pool of former inmates, where seven out of 10 are unemployed.
“If every company could hire even just one person out of the re-entry marketplace, we could bend the curve and make some really meaningful changes to the way society views this population,” he said.