WASHINGTON, November 16, 2023 – Panelists at the U.S. Broadband Summit Wednesday touted state programs that train prisoners to fill broadband worker shortages.
Broadband representatives from Louisiana and Oklahoma commended the actions their states have taken in working with state prisons to integrate incarcerated individuals.
“We’ve got skill centers in our prisons,” said MJ Barton, tribal and programs outreach manager at the Oklahoma Broadband Office. “We want to take that program, use the career text, vote text, and have that go into those prison systems, speed drug court programs, re-merge programs – anything that will help list some of the apps up and give them an opportunity.”
Barton noted that Oklahoma tribes have employed incarcerated individuals to work in areas of the state that are facing workforce shortages for broadband expansion.
Thomas Tyler Jr., deputy director of the Louisiana Office of Broadband Development and Connectivity, recalled attending a graduation ceremony for prisoners who completed a broadband program with a North Louisiana community college. He emphasized the impact that event had on him and the significance it played in the lives of those men.
“It was a really, really touching ceremony to attend because they had eight guys who, you know, all different walks of life, whatever reason they were in prison, they were there to learn how to basically value their lives,” Tyler said. “You know, for some of these guys, that’s probably the first time they’ve graduated from anything.”
Despite these positive outcomes, the inclusion of incarcerated individuals in broadband has led to discomfort amongst potential hirees, according to Chad Crank, managing director of Grain Management, which had to find a different contractor that would hire people from an incarcerated background.
“If you’re going to come and speak to these guys and you don’t have any inclination of ever offering them a job, we don’t want you to come speak to them – there’s no reason to,” Crank recalled telling the contractor.
Although imperfect, the collaboration of prison systems with broadband expansion has led to an upsurge of employment, growth in communities, and the celebration of individuals who have overcome barriers for a second chance at life.
“The skills they learn are transferable and they can start to grow and mature in a company,” Tyler said. “[This] really shows that we have in our state those type of thought leaders who are pushing that type of issue forward and then changing lives and improving outcomes in that way.”
As detailed in the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, states can allocate a portion of their Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program funds toward workforce development. While many states are currently working on their initial proposals for funding allocation, multiple industry experts have advised state authorities to allocate resources to build up essential human capital and engage young individuals in preparation for the future workforce.