By David B. Snow
A grant through West Kentucky Community and Technical College will help the McCracken County Jail continue and improve its vocational training program.
Kevin O’Neill, the vice president of workforce training and economic development at WKCTC, said the grant comes through the U.S. Department of Labor, the Employment and Training Administration, the Delta Regional Authority and the Appalachian Regional Commission.
The three-year grant is valued at $277,291.
“(The grant-funded program) is called Project: Phoenix,” he said. “The jail came up with that name as very applicable, since the phoenix is known for rising up from its ashes.”
An announcement was made by O’Neill and McCracken County Jailer David Knight Thursday afternoon at the Paducah Innovation Hub.
“Before this grant was written, (the jail) was doing training, cognitive skills, drug dependency programs and just several things to help these inmates to prepare them for when they are released,” O’Neill said. “They started adding these vocational skills because everyone is looking for workers.
“This is really an untapped population because they don’t come out with skills, a lot of times, that can give them the work.”
O’Neill said when the grant was being written by him and Knight, they could avoid using the phrase “we hope to achieve” and similar phrases because the program had been up and running before they put in for the grant.
“We had data,” O’Neill said. “We could say how this would equip these inmates for after release, it would reduce recidivism — which is huge — and it would also help fill these job openings for this particular sector.
“(The jail has programs in) welding, they’ve got basic electricity, we actually included some deckhand training and some introductory (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) training.”
The grant was awarded on Sept. 30, 2020, but was unable to be implemented because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Here we are now, a year later, and we’re finally able to get started,” O’Neill said.
Knight said the grant will provide better equipment and training for the rehabilitation programs at the jail along with the cognitive training done at the jail.
Knight said the idea for improved rehabilitation was part of his campaign platform when he ran for jailer in 2018, starting the programs at the jail in May 2019.
“We didn’t know anything about the grant when we started the programs,” he said. “We were running strictly off of donations, and because of the programs, it got attention from all levels and we were able to partner with the school, and it’s worked out really good.
“…This will help a whole lot as far as funding it. It’ll open a lot of doors for us that we didn’t have.”
Through the rehabilitation program, inmates will take courses at the jail with the help of WKCTC instructors.
“The grant pays for instructors, it pays for materials, it pays for equipment like electrical and supplies,” O’Neill said. “It pays for equipment for welding, and they’re actually doing the welding at the (Paducah Innovation) Hub.”
Knight said before the pandemic began, there were up to 30 inmates taking part in the program. He said the pandemic halted the program and it is just now getting started again.
“We’re hoping to run 30 at a time, depending on our numbers,” he said. “We didn’t just pick the programs randomly. We talked with numerous employers — most of which are in the river industry — that are willing to hire convicted felons if they’re trained properly.
“They helped us build programs to suit their needs. That way, it ensures these individuals have jobs when they get out, and it’s worked so far. We’ve had 19 who graduated who have gotten out (of jail), and only two of them have come back, one of them on a very minor thing.”
O’Neill said the program is a rare one that is hard to find nationwide.
“You’re going to have to look long and hard (to find a similar program),” he said. “There are some training programs. When this (grant) was first announced, we were getting some inquiries from other states. I know that the jail was getting some inquiries from other states’ jailers because when this hit the wire, it was getting a lot of traction. I know that all of our representatives at the state and federal level are tickled to see how this is working, once we get started.
“…We’re just tickled to be a part of it and how this is going to be transformational. We believe that very strongly. The part that is really good about it is it helps fill the shortage of skilled workers.”