Mining Programs Provide Job Training for Inmates. But Are They Worth It?

Emily Udell

Some Indiana inmates might get the chance to swap their prison jumpsuits for coal miners’ hats when they complete their sentences, thanks to a new federally-funded program at the Branchville Correctional Facility.

The state’s department of corrections announced (PDF here) this week it was beginning a program at one of its facilities in the southern part of the state to train inmates for careers in coal mining. 

But these programs send our must vulnerable workers into dangerous jobs that can wreak havoc on the environment. There were 175 fatalities in the mining industry in 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (The environmental fallout of mountaintop removal mining and coal operators’ ongoing efforts to break union strongholds have been detailed on this site here.)

The new Vincennes University program will offer prisoners courses in surface and undergound mining to a small number of qualified inmates at the prison in Branchville, Ind., about 50 miles west of Louisville, Ky.

It’s a unique program, but not the first of its kind. In May, inmates in Harlan County, Ky., were part of the first class to graduate from a program training offenders to work in the mines of Eastern Kentucky, an area with scarce job opportunities.

Viable job-training programs are desperately needed in prisons around the country. Many prisoners lack job skills, work histories and other credentials needed to succeed in a tight job market, and many employers flat-out disqualify job seekers with criminal histories. And unemployment is correlated with recidivism, according to the National Institutions of Justice.

But are mining jobs the kind of jobs that prisoners need? Indeed, the average hourly wages for nonsupervisory positions in mining are above the average for other industries and even higher if you can work your way up, according to the labor statistsics bureau.

But workers in undergound mines face potential dangers like cave-ins, mine fires and the long-term effects of lung diseases. In the near-term, employment in the industry is also expected to decline. Why not offer programs to inmates with long-term growth prospects?

Emily Udell is a writer for Angie’s List Magazine in Indianapolis. In 2009, she finished a stint drinking bourbon and covering breaking news for The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky. Her eclectic media career also includes time at the Associated Press, Punk Planet (R.I.P.), The Daily Southtown in southwest Chicago, and Radio Prague in the Czech Republic. She co-hosted and co-produced In These Times’ radio show Fire on the Prairie” from 2003 to 2006.
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