After getting out of prison, Patrick Mix lost track of how many jobs he applied to.

Employers were reluctant to hire someone who had a criminal record. Mix, 44, decided last year to attend a job fair at Ivy Tech Community College. That’s where he met Chevelle Russell, who works at Ivy Tech to help people who have been impacted by the justice system. 

In the days following the job fair, Russell started sending job links to Mix. Shortly after, he completed a manufacturing training program that helped put him on employers’ radars. Mix got a job at an auto manufacturing facility, enrolled in Ivy Tech’s business administration associate degree program and got his driver’s license reinstated.

He had to work hard to get back on his feet. But he also says it wouldn’t have happened without Russell.

“One moment I was going through unemployment and she was like, ‘Patrick, you will not stop,’” Mix said. “She’s a motivator. And I tell everybody she’s my life coach.”

More than half of people who have been incarcerated held only a high school diploma or GED, according to a 2018 study from the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative, and another study found more than 60% of formerly incarcerated people were jobless a year after getting out of prison. 

But Indianapolis area residents like Mix are navigating life after lockup with help from Russell, the director of Ivy Tech’s ELEVATE program. The program helps formerly and currently incarcerated people enroll in classes, find jobs and get support with everything from mental health counseling to financial assistance. 

Since the ELEVATE program started in July 2022, Ivy Tech staff has helped more than 230 people. Residents of Marion, Boone and Hendricks counties can get help through ELEVATE, no matter what they have on their records

Russell, who took over as full-time program director in November, said she wants people who have been affected by the justice system to be aware of their own potential. 

“You see people and you see it in their eyes, you see it in their heart, they want to make a difference,” Russell said. “Yeah, they screwed up, and they made mistakes. We all have. Some of us just didn’t get caught.”

Creating opportunities, support

ELEVATE also helps students who are still in prison. 

Russell visits prisons across Central Indiana to host workshops and classes, such as courses in business or solar panel installation. Soon, those incarcerated students could be eligible for up to $7,400 in Pell Grant funding to get business administration or automotive technology certificates through Ivy Tech.

[Learn about Marion County Community Corrections Welcome Home program]

“I just want to let people know that we have not given up and they should not give up,” she said. “Let me show you what’s out here for you.”

There’s no shortage of options at Ivy Tech. Many ELEVATE students, like Mix, enroll in the Catapult program, which gives students a weekly $600 stipend for four weeks of advanced manufacturing training, six college credits and job support upon completion. Another program, created in partnership with 160 Driving Academy, lets students get their commercial driver’s licenses. 

Russell’s a licensed career coach, and she flexes her skills and community connections often. If a student tells her they need a job, she’ll hop on the phone immediately, calling businesses she knows will consider hiring workers who have a record. 

But being employed is just one part of success upon reentry. People who have spent time in prison face barriers beyond getting a job. 

Chevelle Russell (left) talks with Patrick Mix on Thursday, March 7, 2024, at Ivy Tech Community College in Indianapolis. Russell leads the school’s ELEVATE program, which offers resources to currently and formerly incarcerated individuals. Credit: Jenna Watson/Mirror Indy

Formerly incarcerated individuals are nearly 10 times more likely to experience homelessness and twice as likely to experience food insecurity compared to their peers who did not spend time in prison, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. In Marion County, nearly 3,400 people were released from the Indiana Department of Correction into homeless shelters from 2018 to 2021, according to State Affairs, creating a direct pipeline from prison to homelessness.

Russell knows that it’s hard for students to succeed without having their basic needs met. A large part of her job is making sure her students have a place to live, food to eat, clothes to wear and a way to get to work and school. 

Overcoming obstacles

Artiest Cannady was on the cusp of a well-paying inventory job at a prominent Indianapolis manufacturing company. 

After multiple rounds of interviews and receipt of an offer letter, he felt it was all but cinched. 

But several days before his start date, Cannady got an email that his offer had been rescinded because of his criminal record. At that moment, he saw a $20,000 sign-on bonus and a good salary fade away. It was the third job he missed out on.

“It was devastating to have that slip through the cracks,” said Cannady, 36. He was determined it wouldn’t happen again.

In 2021, he enrolled at Ivy Tech to earn a supply chain certificate. He ended up completing his associate degree last May through a full ride scholarship program that also included a $3,200 yearly stipend. 

Russell, who was Cannady’s career coach, helped connect him with the Marion County prosecutor’s office’s Second Chance workshop, where he got his driver’s license reinstated. He’s also working to expunge his record.

Chevelle Russell, director of ELEVATE at Ivy Tech, gives a presentation to a group of women Wednesday, March 13, 2024, at Dove Recovery House for Women in Indianapolis. Credit: Doug McSchooler for Mirror Indy

Cannady will transfer to IU Indianapolis in the fall to get his bachelor’s degree in supply chain management. Since September, he’s worked full-time at Ivy Tech. 

The last few years have involved a lot of penny-pinching, long hours and sacrifices for his family. But for Cannady, it’s all worth it to show his five kids what their dad is capable of. 

“I knew I had to find a way to redefine myself and reinvent myself to better position myself to take care of them, provide different opportunities for them,” he said. “Because when it’s all said and done, I want them to be able to experience life.” 

As for Mix, he just started a new job at Allison Transmission on the west side, where he’ll get paid up to $35 an hour after he finishes training. He plans to reenroll in classes for his business administration degree soon.

Mix still stops by Russell’s office every week. He shows his gratitude by checking in with her often. 

“If then me could see the now me, I would tell myself, ‘Keep going, you’ll be better,’” Mix said. “I just know I would not be better if it was not for how hard that lady worked.”

Claire Rafford covers higher ed for Mirror Indy in partnership with Open Campus.