Virginia Prison Program 1

october 2015

virginia dmv partners with prisons and jails to ease inmate reentry

Photo on the left: Virginia DMV DLQA agent Rob Thomas (left) administers the CDL road skills test to David Blackmon (right).

PREPARING FOR LIFE ON THE OUTSIDE

Getting a commercial driver’s license (CDL) can take time and money. For the men in Tammy McGrath’s CDL program, money is scarce; time, on the other hand, is a nearly endless resource. McGrath is a reentry coordinator for the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in Petersburg, Virginia, and the men in her program are studying for the Virginia CDL test in hopes of securing a good job upon release. There’s a lot riding on the test, particularly the road skills portion. Trucking jobs pay well, and they are in demand.

McGrath helped create the CDL program at Petersburg Federal Correctional Center (FCC). She calls it a “labor of love.” Prior to the current class, 99 inmates have received class A CDLs under her watch.

“People transfer from facilities all over the country to be part of this program,” McGrath explains. “They are willing to do what it takes to seize this opportunity.”

Virginia Prison Program 2
Virginia DMV Commissioner and AAMVA Chair of the Board Rick Holcomb (center) stands with a group of inmate CDL trainees and staff from DMV and the Federal Bureau of Prisons during a training session earlier this year.

VIRGINIA DMV LENDS A helping HAND

The Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has been partnering with the BOP and the Virginia Department of Corrections (DOC) to provide CDL testing services since 2010. The idea behind the program is that a former inmate who can get work is less likely to return to prison. Reducing recidivism is a high priority in Virginia and elsewhere.

Virginia DMV has gained national recognition for its efforts to support inmate reentry efforts. In addition to CDL testing, DMV has developed a program called DMV Connect, which brings portable ID processing capability inside correctional facilities. The goal is to make sure inmates leave the facilities with a Virginia state ID- a crucial step in obtaining work, housing, benefits, and more. To date, nearly 11,000 inmates have obtained ID through the program. DMV Connect, which started as a partnership with Virginia DOC, serves every state correctional facility, two federal facilities, and several local and regional jails.

“We are proud to work with our correctional partners to help these men and women get a second chance,” said Rick Holcomb, Commissioner of the Virginia DMV and AAMVA International Board Chairman. “These programs give former inmates a head start on rejoining society in a productive way.”

Testing day

On a sweltering June day at a CDL testing site just outside Richmond, Virginia, Tammy McGrath and four men in blue-green prison attire gather in the shade of a tent. The men are awaiting their turns for the road skills test, trying to appear cool and calm, but nonetheless feeling the heat of the test and the Virginia sun.

Mike Harrison, an inmate and CDL holder himself, is the on-site instructor for the CDL hopefuls. Under his tutelage, inmates spend countless hours studying, quizzing each other, and practicing on a tractor-trailer provided by the Bureau of Prisons, which they drive in a secure lot at the prison.

“I tell the guys that this will change your life if you’re willing to do the work,” says Harrison of the program. “It will put bread on the table.”

David Blackmon is the next man up. He doesn’t say much except a short affirmative when McGrath asks him if he’s ready.

Rob Johnson, a driver license quality assurance (DLQA) agent with DMV, brings him over to the test rig for the first part of the test- the pre-trip inspection. As Blackmon walks the length of the truck, the words flow effortlessly as he inspects the rig, explaining every step to Johnson as he goes. It’s obvious that the hours of study and preparation have readied him for the moment.

“I’ve been with this program from the beginning,” says Johnson. “These guys really put in a lot of work, and they are very grateful for this opportunity.”

the program pays off

McGrath reports that 47% of program participants have gotten jobs in the transportation industry with their CDLs. It’s no wonder the program has a 28-month waiting list.

To get into the program, offenders have to be non-violent minimum security level offenders housed at Petersburg Federal Correctional Center. They must resolve outstanding issues affecting their ability to drive. In addition, they must have clear conduct for the past 18 months. They also have to pay for outstanding expenses with their own funds. Still, McGrath knows people will question the expenditure of resources to help prisoners get training that costs thousands of dollars for non-prisoners.

“It costs nearly $30,000 per year to house each of these offenders,” McGrath says. “The money spent on this program ultimately saves money by keeping people out of our prisons.”

“All that aside, they will be getting out soon, and living in our neighborhoods. Their kids will go to school with our kids. We should all be rooting for these guys to succeed.”

GRADUATION DAY

On September 18, 2015, more than 40 inmates at the Federal Correctional Complex in Petersburg, Virginia were recognized for earning CDLs through the prison’s CDL program. Among them were David Blackmon, Mike Harrison, and all of the other inmates who sweated through testing on that hot July day.

Rick Holcomb was invited to be the guest speaker. “DMV didn’t give you CDLs,” he told the graduates. “You earned those CDLs through your hard work and dedication.”

The ceremony was much like a typical graduation. Family members came and cheered for their loved ones. There was food and cake afterwards. The graduates beamed with excitement as they imagined futures beyond bars and barbed wire. Most will be released within a year or two, and the now 51% job placement rate of the program bodes well for their chances for success on the outside.