PERRY COUNTY - The Indiana Department of Correction is trying to help fill voids in the state’s manufacturing workforce by preparing and training low-risk inmates before they are released.

Branchville Correctional Facility in downstate Perry County just graduated its first cohort of the Catapult Training Program, following a four-week course in basic manufacturing skills.

The facility is classified as a Level II Low Medium Security Correctional Facility. 

“It’s designed to help soon-to-be-released offenders obtain the security of meaningful employment," said Branchville Deputy Warden Dan Mitchell.  

Graduates learn the manufacturing process by participating in a simulation of building a car while working on mechanical conveyor belts.

The DOC says the process exposed the participants to work on teams and production lines.  It also taught the participants how to handle small parts and operate power tools effectively and safely. 

Adam Gast, who is serving time for a drug violation, is set to be released in February. He saw the program as an opportunity to prepare for the real world outside the prison fences.

“I am motivated to do whatever I can to be ready for when I’m released,’ said Gast. “So, I signed up for it.”

Gast and the other 19 graduates completed 160 hours of classroom instruction and hands-on skills training.  

Upon completion, graduates receive a certificate from Vincennes University.

The program’s goal is to prepare graduates by teaching the necessary skills desired by today's manufacturing companies.

The Conexus Indiana Advanced Manufacturing Council helped DOC develop the program. Sherman Johnson, who is executive director of Offender Employment Development at Indiana DOC, says that’s what makes this program different beyond basic vocational training at a prison.

“We know that it's accepted by industry. They put it together. These are the skills that they're looking for,” said Johnson.

During the 2018 State of the State address, Governor Eric Holcomb said one of his priorities was to train DOC offenders for high-wage, high-demand jobs after serving their time.

Other prisons offer other courses, such as welding and computer coding.

“So, we send off with the good skills, we hope to get them placed immediately, put them on a career pathway, so they don't come back to us,” said Johnson.

Not all offenders who apply for the program are accepted. They must meet certain qualifications, such as possessing at least a GED, plus they must be considered a non-threat to fellow classmates. And another part? “It's their attitude,” explains Johnson. “They've demonstrated their willingness to make a change by their behavior within our system, their interaction with the personnel in the staff at the facility.”

Johnson says that determination is necessary so when they go on job interviews post-release, but don’t get a job offer, they don’t give up.

“It's how they approach it, their determination to make it work. They're saying, I won't stop until I get what I want.”

Just before graduation, the inmates prepare for future employment by taking part in Skype interviews with employees from CFA Staffing Inc.

The employment firm will help graduated find a job after they are released. DOC says it attempts to connect graduate offenders land a job in their home counties.

For Gast, the class gives offenders a chance to feel less like inmates, and more like students.

“To me, it was refreshing. It was good. It felt normal. It didn't feel like that I was in prison,” said Gast