A year after being released from prison, three out of four people are unemployed. But the day after Brittany Wright, 30, got out in June, she was reporting to work.

Thanks to a program that trains incarcerated women in well-paying trades, she had the skills and connections she needed to start a job at Kiewit, a Seattle construction and engineering firm. Now, six months later, she’s earning $31 per hour working on a light rail expansion project for Sound Transit.

The 16-week state program, called Trades Related Apprenticeship Coaching, or TRAC, helps combat a monumental challenge incarcerated people face when they reenter society: quickly finding jobs with decent wages in fields that will actually employ people with prison records.

Wright, a cement mason apprentice, said that because of TRAC, she has a clear path forward and her finances in check — an enormous improvement over her situation when she emerged from a previous prison sentence a decade ago.

“The last time, I just got out,” she said. “Everything was so much harder: Finding a job was harder, getting my life together was harder, finding a place to live was harder. All of these things that you would do to reenter society just took a long time.”

Wright and other formerly incarcerated people have an almost five times greater likelihood of being unemployed than other adults, the Prison Policy Initiative estimates. The unemployment rate among formerly incarcerated individuals is also 27%, greater than the highest general unemployment rate during both the Great Depression and the 2008 recession. 

Formerly incarcerated people who do find jobs earn only around half of the wages of the average worker, with even greater disparities for Black, Native American and Latino people, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. In some industries, such as health care, people with felonies or specific types of convictions are often banned altogether.

Timing matters, too. 

“It’s important that we get the women working right away when they get out,” said Heather Kurtenbach, a formerly incarcerated business agent at Ironworkers Local 86 in Tukwila. Research shows that finding employment soon after release is an essential factor in reducing recidivism. 

To help address that need, the ironworkers union changed its rules to allow TRAC graduates from Washington women’s prisons to have an individual safety orientation and evaluation to help get them set up quickly, instead of waiting weeks for a regularly scheduled group evaluation — or taking another, less lucrative job.

TRAC’s goal is to give participants the entry-level skills they need to become apprentices with unions, which can help them find jobs where they can complete the roughly 6,000 hours of paid on-the-job training required to work without supervision. Hundreds of additional hours of required community college instruction also usually leave apprentices only a few credits shy of an associate degree.

Further, the training leads recently incarcerated people toward jobs that earn enough to pay the bills. Ironworker apprentices in Western Washington, for example, start at around $32 per hour plus benefits and progressively increase to a $50 hourly wage at the end of their four-year training. Once they reach journey-level status, they earn over $100,000 a year, and workers say there’s potential to make much more with overtime. 

Kurtenbach discovered the benefits of training in the trades herself. After she was released from prison in 2005, she struggled to find a job. “Nobody would freaking hire me, not even to flip burgers,” she said. “Once you check that box, ‘Yes, I am a felon,’ that pretty much closes the door.”

She was working odd jobs and living with family members near Seattle. One night her brother-in-law came home from work and showed her a check stub from his ironworking job. 

“Do you think I could do that?” she asked him. The next day, she went down to the local union in Tukwila and soon got dispatched to her first job. 

Kurtenbach has been with the ironworkers ever since, regularly working with TRAC participants. “When I was incarcerated, women like me would come in and talk to us, and I never, ever would have imagined that I would be that woman,” she said. 

Aubrey Russell, a journeyman ironworker, got her start in the trade through Washington’s Trades Related Apprenticeship Coaching program, which helps incarcerated people find jobs in ironworking and other trades when they reenter society. (Charlotte West / Open Campus)

Barriers to prosperous work

But even in industries that welcome people with prison records, there are sometimes barriers and reminders of the past. 

Washington law, for example, requires people be released to the county where they received their first felony conviction, which might not be where their work is located. And while exceptions to that law are common, people might have to turn down jobs unless they have special permission to cross county lines. Some work sites also require background checks.

Other challenges are logistical, such as getting to and from work without a driver’s license or vehicle. 

When Aubrey Russell, 34, got out of prison in 2019, she didn’t have a car for her first six months as an apprentice ironworker. Although she had a free bus pass, some of her job sites weren’t on bus routes. 

“So I’d take an $80 Lyft there in the morning and an $80 dollar Lyft home at night,” she said. 

Ironworking has proved to be a more welcoming industry for Russell than other professions, as she said the pair of associate’s degrees in computer technology she earned in 2015 were “a waste of time” because she hadn’t been able to find work.

“I have a horrible criminal record so I never got hired,” she said of the information technology field. “I never made one penny, and I still have like 20 grand in student loans I’m paying on right now. I should have gone for welding.”

Russell knew she wanted to pursue a career in ironworking from the moment she picked up her first piece of 80-pound rebar. “I felt like I had a purpose,” she said. 

After graduating from the TRAC program in 2018, she worked as a teaching assistant until she got out of prison in 2019. Over the next four years, she worked on projects ranging from Seattle-area light rail to Interstate 90. Then, last April, she became a journeyman ironworker, permitted to work without supervision.

“It drives my wife crazy. I’m like, ‘Babe, look!’ anytime I go by anything that I’ve helped build,” Russell said. “It’s cool to be a part of that.”

Aubrey Russell, a journeyman ironworker, knew she wanted to pursue a career in ironworking from the moment she picked up her first piece of 80-pound rebar. “I felt like I had a purpose,” she said. (Charlotte West / Open Campus)

Making training relevant

Washington is one of several states — including Colorado, Iowa and Ohio — that have started working with trade unions and other industry partners to create apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs like TRAC to develop pathways from prison to work. 

Still, only about one-third of people in state prisons reported having access to any kind of job during their incarceration. And not all jobs programs are equally effective, especially if people are learning new skills in a void. 

Training programs that don’t have a direct relationship with employers aren’t as meaningful, said Joshua Johnson, an apprenticeship expert at Jobs for the Future, a national nonprofit focused on education and workforce systems. 

“You can send people to a program and give them a certificate all you want, but if they’re not connected to the industry, they’re going to struggle,” said Johnson, who was formerly incarcerated. He began his post-prison career with a construction apprenticeship in Wisconsin before eventually going on to help create apprenticeship programs in that state’s prison system. 

In Washington, the TRAC program is designed to simulate the workday of union employees in various industries. While participants aren’t paid, they are setting themselves up for high-wage employment on the outside, said Steven Petermann, who directs the program. 

Getting accepted into the program isn’t easy. Participants have to be physically fit enough to dig ditches, haul gravel and carry 80-pound rebar. There’s also a classroom component: The women have to do math homework, learn how to tie knots, practice interview skills and complete financial literacy lessons that include balancing a checkbook. 

In the past 10 years, 250 women have graduated from TRAC. Around 80 of the 220 who are no longer incarcerated entered into registered apprenticeships, and many others have used the skills they learned in the program in other fields. 

It’s OK if TRAC participants don’t end up pursuing a career in the trades, Petermann said. He intentionally teaches them soft skills — like interview techniques and resume writing — that translate to other fields. Program graduates have a recidivism rate of less than 5%, compared with the general 15% recidivism rate for women in Washington. 

Through its community connections, the program also helps with basic needs when the women first get out, lining up housing and transportation, for example. Petermann has also secured grant funding that helps the women cover startup costs with the union, as apprentices are responsible for buying their own tools, belts and boots, and have to pay monthly membership dues.

TRAC has become a model for a similar initiative at Oregon’s only women’s prison, near Portland. Last summer, the first five women graduated from that state’s program, a partnership between the corrections department and the ironworkers, bricklayers and cement masons unions, which offer direct or preferred entry to graduates. 

Anna Martin of the Portland-based Ironworkers Local 29, which coordinates Oregon’s pre-apprenticeship, said the program helps the unions, too, aiding them in meeting their goals for recruiting more women, who are underrepresented in the trades. Martin said many women weren’t aware of trade careers before participating in Oregon’s program, or that completing an apprenticeship could lead to an associate degree.

Wright, the recent TRAC graduate, said she initially joined the program because it offered something productive to do while incarcerated. She grew up working with her hands, so she quickly picked up a lot of the construction skills. And her placement at the top of her class on some of her tests helped restore her confidence, reminding her how she could apply her skills professionally. 

Brittany Wright, an apprentice with the Cement Masons & Plasterers Local Union 528, has completed her work-release program, officially emerged from state custody and returned to her two children in Island County with thousands of dollars in savings. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

In mid-December, Wright completed her work-release program, officially emerged from state custody and returned to her two children in Island County with thousands of dollars in savings. 

Now, she said, “I have a steady career that I enjoy.”

Updated 1/23/2024: A previous version of this story misstated Washington’s law regarding where people must be released upon their emergence from prison. State law requires people be released to the county where they received their first felony conviction, though exceptions are common.

This story was co-published by The Seattle Times. It was produced with support from the Higher Education Media Fellowship at the Institute for Citizens & Scholars. The Fellowship supports new reporting into issues related to postsecondary career and technical education.

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