Albany Times Union | June 30, 2016 | Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs
Bethlehem – As Jerry McCluskey sprays lubricant on machines or laughs with his co-workers, he looks no different from the other mechanics at the paving and construction company where they work.
McCluskey grew up working on cars in Schoharie and was a technician in the Army. The president of Callanan Industries regards him as a dedicated employee, and McCluskey says everyone has made him feel welcome at his new job.
But when the 34-year-old veteran arrives at 7 a.m., five days a week, he steps out of an Albany County Correctional Facility vehicle, and when he leaves at 3:30, he is transported back to the jail where he is serving a two-year sentence for driving with 26 license suspensions.
He is the first in a collaboration among the Albany County Sheriff’s Office and Soldier On, a privately funded veterans advocacy group, as well as Callanan, to employ incarcerated veterans while they complete their sentences in a ground-breaking program that Sheriff Craig Apple said is attracting attention from other agencies across the country.
On Thursday, Apple announced the Second Chance Veteran Inmate Work Release Program at Callanan’s mechanic garage in Selkirk, where McCluskey earns $15 an hour — money he uses to pay off fines and saves for life after jail. The goal is to drive down recidivism rates and prepare incarcerated veterans for employment.
Of about 200 veterans who have passed through Soldier On’s counseling services at the jail in the last two years, only four have returned. Yet, this is the first time the jail has allowed outside companies to hire inmates as full-time employees.
John Downing, CEO of Massachusetts-based Soldier On, said it was time to “stop having parades for veterans” and instead find ways for them “to be employed and have successful and stable lives, rather than celebrating them and then walking away and forgetting they exist.”
Although McCluskey was sentenced to two years in jail for two counts of felony first-degree aggravated unlicensed operation, he can get out by September with good behavior. Through the new work-release program, he is also guaranteed employment at Callanan after serving his time.
This past month passed much more quickly than the first four, McCluskey said, now that he is spending his time working and making money. Before, “all I was doing was just sitting there,” McCluskey said. “To be able to get out and do this, it’s making the time go by so fast.”
Callanan President Don Fane, who proposed the program to the jail because of difficulty filling positions and a determination to help veterans, said McCluskey and others can apply their military training to the workforce.
“They learned a skill when they were in the service … they didn’t forget it,” he said. “And this particular individual in this case, he’s been a very good employee.”
Apple said hiring McCluskey was a “bold move” and hopes other companies see the program’s success and say, “We can try that.”
McCluskey said he wants to counsel inmates through Soldier On once he is released.
He wears a bright orange Callanan T-shirt and green cap and is grateful to be a part of the Callanan team.
“I come here, work eight hours, go home, sleep, wake up and do it again,” he said. “The only difference is I go home to a different place than everybody else.”
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