Pegged As An ‘Untapped Workforce,’ Former Prisoners Seek Job Skills Behind Bars

Aug 13, 2019

Kevin Plumlee seated at the KSMU studio with his employers Patsy O'Kieffe and Michael Hyams.
Credit Joshua Conaway / KSMU

When a prison inmate is released after serving time, it can be hard to find a job. The Missouri Job Center’s APPLIE Program gives former inmates an opportunity to transition back into the workforce seamlessly. 

After nearly 11 years in prison, Kevin Plumlee had a chance to start over. After serving time for first degree assault in a bar fight at age 22, he found life on the outside a lot different than life behind bars.

“It’s crazy, those things that you never think about. Walking barefoot on carpet. Taking a shower with no flip flops on, using a toothbrush that isn’t two inches long, you know? I gagged the first week using a toothbrush!” Plumlee laughs.

He needed a job. But his rap sheet was more extensive than his resume—and many employers are hesitant to hire convicted felons, even if they have served their time.

Luckily for Plumlee, he found the APPLIE program. He was only 60 days from being released when he noticed several inmates dressed in full gray suits in the prison yard at the Ozarks Correctional Center.

“And I asked a guy, I said, “Where are you going?” and he said “Man, I’m going to a job interview.” And I was like, “A job interview?” and he goes, “Yeah, there’s this job-readiness APPLIE program that you can apply for if you’re so close to getting out, and they’ll bring employers in and they’ll interview you and you might get a job,” Plumlee told KSMU.

APPLIE’s goal is to prepare prisoners for the workforce before they’re released. Certification comes from a course involving several weeks of training on how to fill out job applications and conduct interviews.

Patsy O’Kieffe, the CEO of Branson Cedars resort, says the director of the APPLIE program invited her to the correctional facility to interview prisoners for work after their release.

“So I called my partner Michael and said, “Well, they have this program. Keep an open mind, we’re gonna to go to the prison to hire some people.  And Michael’s words to me is, ‘We’re going where?’” O'Kieffe recalls.

When she got there, O’Kieffe was impressed.  The prisoners had researched the businesses they were applying to.

“Their resumes are probably better than 99% of the people I’ve ever seen," O'Kieffe says. "Looking at their resumes, you would not know that they were somebody who was coming from a detention center.”

Thanks to APPLIE, Kevin Plumlee knew how to answer job interview questions and how to market his skills. Today, he works as a maintenance and lawn care professional for Branson Cedars. And that business wants to hire more people who have gone through APPLIE.

Tanner Devereaux, who’s 25 years old and served four years for burglary, possession charges, and 11 felonies says he’s turned his life around and found faith.

He’s worked for Grave’s Construction and Remodel for two months. He says APPLIE helped him learn how to search for jobs and work on his resume.

“They would have us fill out applications, and trial and error. ‘Okay, this is not how you fill out an application. This is how you do it,’” Deveraux says.

Tanner plans to take online classes at Luther Rice Theological College while he works and get his Master’s degree in Biblical studies.

Jennifer Biri is the business service representative for the APPLIE program.  She says businesses are eager to fill job openings, and 20,000 prisoners released in Missouri every year will help fill a need in the workforce.

“There’s a lot of skills that are behind those walls, and right now with unemployment in our area being so low, employers are looking at new innovative ways to try to find employees,” she says.

She said former prisoners who have proven themselves are an untapped workforce.