Inmates in Essex County participating in work-release program

Unemployment is at a historic low in Massachusetts and that has some employers scrambling to find reliable employees willing to learn new skills.

In Essex County, a novel solution to the labor shortage is underway. There are currently two dozen current and former inmates from the Essex County Jail employed full-time at Berkshire Manufactured Products in Newburyport.

"We pick up and deliver," said Essex County Sheriff Kevin Coppinger. "So, you don't have to worry about them oversleeping."

Berkshire was relying on temps to stamp out jet engine parts, but there was a high rate of attrition.

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So, two years ago they agreed to participate in the jail's extensive work-release program. Which aims not just to find inmates jobs, but a skilled position that can carry them back into society.

"They're happy to be here," said Ron Briere of Berkshire Manufacturing Products. "They're doing something productive, and I think a lot of them see this as an opportunity when they get out."

Berkshire offered Lisbran Lopez a job after he got out of jail based on the good work he did for them while he was incarcerated.

"You don't feel like you're going to come out and be a burden on anybody else's shoulders because you're coming out independently with money in your pocket and with a future sort of spoken for you," Lopez said.

Current inmate Norberto Manon is putting in 40-plus hours a week at Berkshire.

"It's nice to come out and work," Manon said. "Be around other people, you know."

If the program helps ease the labor shortage, great says the county sheriff. But there's also a larger goal.

"When the inmates arrive, our job from day one is to find a way to send them back to their local community in better shape than when they arrived," Sheriff Coppinger said. "With the ultimate goal of having them never return."

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There are many good reasons to reduce the number of repeat offenders. In Essex County, one of them is the numbers. No county facility holds more inmates than the one in Essex; there are some 1200 incarcerated in its jail.

Only non-violent offenders are eligible for the jail's work-release program.

Each weekday about 100 inmates head out to work, fueled with hope and ambition.

"I feel like everybody deserves a second chance," Manon said. "Everybody."